This will be discussing mental illness and it is personal, so be kind.
A family friend and I had a conversation once about mental illness. He posited that a lot of brilliant people had connections to mental illness, and he wasn’t so sure the wording was correct if it can lead to good things like intelligence. Mental illness as a term has a lot of weight attached to it, especially these days when people do terrible things and it gets contributed to mental illness. People say we should get more help for that, and I agree, because it is hard to get help and the stigma attached to it is so negative that people sometimes never even try to get help out of shame. That’s where I was at when I was younger. My answer to him was that I think mental illness is the proper term, because when I’m stuck in an obsessive cycle, or when my emotions are swinging all over the place, I do feel ill. It is immensely frustrating, especially when you get into the mindset of there is no cure for this, so this is the rest of my life, and that is very disheartening. There are bad nights when it’s all I can think about.
My psychiatrist presented it to me this way: the brain is an organ like anything else. It can get ill and need medication or assistance in making it better. It doesn’t have to be any different from another organ in your body suffering and needing meds. It’s the culture of today that makes it so hard to believe in that. You’re supposed to be able to control yourself and control your mind, you’re weak if you don’t. I’ve mentioned before to family friends that I am bipolar II, and the look of concern and alarm on their face makes it harder for me to talk about it. I know in the past it was treated horribly and it may seem scarier to an older generation. The thing is, I feel like it’s important for more people to talk about it, because that’s the only real way to slowly chip away at that stigma and public assumption. We need to humanize mental illness so it’s not only when someone kills other people it is brought up. Carrie Fisher and Stephen Fry, two people I’ll have photos of in this article, are celebs who have spoken up even if it could potentially be uncomfortable or detrimental to them. I try to do the same, when my sharing could help others.
I don’t know exactly when I knew that something was up with my head. I was probably a teenager, but I was told that wild shifting emotions were perfectly normal at that age, which isn’t entirely incorrect. I’d displayed OCD qualities for quite some time though. My parents said as early as toddler age I had some very specific habits and anxieties that are easy to connect to OCD now. Mine doesn’t show itself in that cleaning or ritualistic way, which is how most people know it to be. That’s why they do things like joke ‘I’m so clean, I’m OCD!’ If they knew how difficult the disorder can be, they might not tie themselves to it so easily. For me it does show in obsessive checking (different from rituals), where I’m convinced I didn’t lock the door or put the alarm on or a hundred things that nag at me even though I very clearly remember that I did it. It can keep me up at night. I sometimes get up a dozen times to go make sure AGAIN that the doors are secure. I’ve turned around while driving several times ‘just to be sure’ I turned the space heater off or shut the door properly. I know other people do this too, but have you done it five times in one drive, regardless of the fact you already turned back around and made sure several times? And I can remind myself over and over that I did it, you’ve already checked Chelsea, but I get this anxious feeling in my gut that doesn’t go away. One time I spent an hour checking my several alarms (because of this I set about 10 alarms every five minutes just in case) over and over, so I didn’t get to sleep until late. So that’s fun!
The more serious problem is obsessive thoughts and cycling through them. There are moments when I sit here and randomly my brain goes ‘hey remember that thing you did in third grade that was awful or humiliating and there’s nothing you can do to change it, but let’s wallow in that pain for the next three hours.’ And once that passes, it goes ‘okay how about that thing in SIXTH grade that was even worse!’ Then there’s intrusive thoughts, those are fun. That’s when your brain decides to put a thought out there that is usually horrible or completely inappropriate, and you can’t think of anything but it. It’s involuntary and very unpleasant. As an example, when I go over a bridge, I think about turning my car and driving off of it. Every time. Mind you, this is not a suicidal thing, because when I’m thinking about it, it’s not out of desire for death. Instead I’ll go over the thought of falling, of water filling my car, of how I would get out if I could get out. I know now everyone will fear driving with me, sorry about that, but I assure you intrusive thoughts don’t really mean people want to do them. And it’s always when I’m driving alone I think about it, not when someone else is there with me. It’s just popping into my head until I brush it aside like ‘dude, seriously, why.’
And I haven’t even gotten to the full bipolar part, haha. I was misdiagnosed for years with depression, which is common for bipolars. It’s very easy to see the lows, because when you’re in a high, oh my god it’s great. And it’s not the sort of thing you think to tell shrinks at first, because you feel amazing! Hypomania is what’s associated with type 2s. It’s not quite to manic levels, thankfully, but I get filled with energy and exhilaration and it actually feels like a kind of high. I can do anything! I can take on 100 projects! I could walk an entire city in a day! Everything is possible! I’m bulletproof! So you can see why that’s potentially a bad thing. I once went on a hypomania kick for four or five days; I felt like I was buzzing or my brain was burning, and I didn’t sleep or remember to eat, I decided to start many projects at once, I have so many ideas, and then run to the park and dance around. It’s not a delusion, really, it’s not psychosis, but it’s definitely not usual. I’ve run into some bipolars who hate medication because they actually feel like they’re at their best in these states. They feel like medication dulls their brilliance, and I mean, that’s what it’s supposed to do. Stop you from hypomania or at least balance it, and if you’re clinging to the hypomania or high energy stuff, of course you don’t want to be evened out. But it’s necessary, and I worry about people who refuse medication or go off it randomly. It should be noted that bipolar type 2 is associated with more suicidal risk. If you think about how quickly someone can go from devastating depression to overconfidence elation, well, it’s not that surprising to think of the dark paths that could lead down.
I take medication. I was very lucky that I found a great psychiatrist and that the first tests of medication worked on me. Lamictal is one that is probably genetically sound as I have family members who it works with. I take a few other things to treat the other symptoms or support the mood stabilizer. It doesn’t erase the illness, it just helps take some of the edge off. It makes it easier for me to focus and know when I’m probably not thinking clearly or need to take a deep breath. I am typically very level, and I keep myself honest about when I’m maybe not being level and need to think through decisions in that mood. I have never been tempted to stop taking my meds, although that is a common problem with this disease. I know why. It’s not just when you feel muted, it’s also this whole ‘hey you’re doing fine now you don’t need it! It’s weak to need it! You’re probably not even that bad!’ It’s kind of weird to talk about how an illness can feel like a devil in your head. I probably sound crazier for saying that, but it is what it is.
So what are the causes? Brain chemistry is the most obvious one. It’s sometimes genetic. I’ve been told circumstances can make someone worse, like PTSD or trauma of some kind. I’m not sure, so maybe consult actual experts on that. It is not easy getting help. It is not easy getting help in a world that tells you not to get help, or in a culture that shames you for needing it. It also doesn’t help that it is hard to get mental health help when it comes to health care, which is depressingly hilarious when you think about how many people say mental illness is the problem but then don’t cover/fund services to treat it. Generally it’s helpful if you’re able to talk about it, and if you’re able to find support systems in your life who are ready with a shoulder or ear when you’re in a state. It’s very difficult to deal with these things on your own, and it could also be dangerous.
I can’t say don’t be afraid of being mentally ill or being bipolar. It can be impossible and frustrating and depressing to know your brain is actively working against you. But your brain can also work for you, if you are honest with yourself and strengthen your responses to the anxieties. And seek medical care if you can. If not, join some online communities of people who you can talk with, research ways to cope without medication, and forgive yourself and your brain for what’s happening. It is not our fault. This is the hand we were given.
If anyone reading this needs to talk about what’s going on with them, I’m always here.