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Even though I’m an intern at Painted Brain, an organization founded on the principles of social support, acceptance, and the reduction of stigma surrounding mental illness, I am still hesitant to disclose my diagnosis.
I am still afraid, terrified that a tiny piece of information might pervade people’s perception of me, as they evaluate everything I say and do through the lens of my mental illness.
We might attribute this to centuries of society’s uneducated and demonizing view of mental illness which, unfortunately, is still a reality in many corners of the world. However, the real responsibility lies with me, in the hope that, by sharing my story, I may shed some light on what’s inside my mind, illuminate my struggle, and direct attention to the light at the end of the tunnel in the battle against mental illness.
I was a perfectly “normal” teenager, grumpy and moody, viewing daily problems on an apocalyptic scale. I would lay on my bed every day listening to the angsty Paramore CD, a weird ritual to indulge and conflate my anger and depression. I would never have considered myself depressed, though I it’s likely I lacked that level of self-awareness.
The next three years of my life in college is where the yo-yo of my bipolar disorder began. It manifested like this.
Life would get really awesome. I’d lose weight. Some new opportunity would present itself and I loved it. The confidence and appreciation of new activity made me happier and more likely to engage with people, all the people. The happiness turned into love and I started to care about everything and everyone so deeply around me. Everything became so important because they were the threads of society and my interpersonal and professional relationships that I wanted to maximize the potential and my own investments in as many contexts as possible. I would take on philanthropy-oriented projects, research positions, and become president of social and academic organizations. I would manage these commitments and my personal life, school, all of these incredibly-rewarding tasks, with flying colors. I was incredibly charming and capable.
Eventually, this maximize-without-barriers model, inevitably, begins to trade-off, with certain things “normal people” might find taxing, such as a lack of sleep. I was too happy and involved with making the world at-large (and my own world, of course) a better place for the simple need for sleep to permeate or pervade. This scenario could go on for weeks, or even months. Eventually, the “little brain parts” realize that this is unhealthy for the unconscious physical brain, despite all of the gratitude and the deep personal connection to the world felt by the conscious brain and physical body.
My mom liked to call my episodes “seizures,” which is kind of cute I think. Imagine running around in a chicken body while your brain seizes up, but you still feel incredibly happy. You’re bold, the life of the party, inspired by the simplest, most beautiful things. Mania is the most insane drug you will never try, it’s the best day of your life followed by three months in physical and mental prison.
I like to use the expression, “What comes up, must come down.” I’ll leave neurology to the neurologists, but in simple terms, it means, “Sorry, theres no free lunch.” This two-to-four month cycle would inevitably lead to getting arrested for cartwheeling or singing in public or giving away all of my possessions to homeless people on skid row, followed by three-to-six months dead-bolted to my bed, struggling to deal with the consequences of the mountain of responsibilities I’d taken on yet failed to fulfill, unwilling and unable to explain my abrupt leave of absence to anyone.
Beyond the mania and depression itself, the worst part was the awkwardness, the inability to engage, and the lack of a socially acceptable explanation. The isolation and guilt I felt after “recovering” in, and from, the hospital.
As a lover of people, how can I look anyone in the eye without thinking that they’re looking at me, thinking anything other than, “But this bitch be crazy!”
There were never any discussions, no “model-bipolar” for my friends to look to and be anything other than terrified of me, They had no idea what to say to me. No one ever talks about it.
So here I am.
There are heaps of common misconceptions about people with bipolar disorder, such as, They’re gonna be totally laughing one minute then crying immediately after. They can develop multiple personalities based on their inevitable and uncontrollable ‘violent’ mood swings.
The ignorance about violence really hits me hard because I would never hurt a fly, I’m more likely to buy you gifts you don’t need or buy the whole bar a drink.
(Maybe not such a shabby pal to have around after all.)
Mandy Mania (pseudonym) is an intern at Painted Brain, and this is her first contribution to Painted Brain News