Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My Manic and I

I’m an all or nothing girl. I don’t know what ‘the middle ground’ looks like. I have an addictive personality and I don’t love or hate by halves. When I disagree with something I have a lot of trouble pulling my head in, something that made high school especially difficult and me a bit of a target in some workplaces. An already emotional person, when I am passionate about something I will move heaven and earth to make sure that people join my side. It’s already obvious that my strengths and vices are very much two sides of the same ideological coin.

After saying that, it won’t come as a surprise that I suffer from Bipolar II. I’ve almost certainly had it since I was about 15 but I was only diagnosed properly about eighteen months ago (I’m a little over 28). My official diagnosis also includes a comorbid Generalised Anxiety Disorder and I suffer from chronic insomnia. Sometimes the insomnia is even more debilitating than the illness, and that’s saying something.

Writing it so baldly on the (internet) page like that is hard for me. I hate my petty, vicious illness. I lost most of my twenties to it after it spun out of control at the end of 2004. I managed to get through my late teenage years by stringing together enough good days when it counted and I have skated academically my entire life. But about eight years ago this was no longer enough.

It’s hard to describe what suffering from a chronic illness is like. People often talk about their lives breaking into pieces. But this implies that there are bits to piece back together, that you can go back to how things were. It’s not like that.

A few times I have described it as like being in a bathtub with soap and bubbles and warm water. There might be music and candles and whatever – the point is that you are present and warm and everything is  - well, not fine, but liveable. And then suddenly it’s just you, in an empty tub, and it’s cold. There’s nothing to put back together and you discover that a quarter of your life has passed you by.

You don’t get your twenties back. Most of my (very high achieving) friends have been living so fully in the ensuing years that they don’t quite understand what it’s been like. They have jobs and marriages and hobbies and houses and post grad degrees at very impressive places and some of them even have kids. My one priority has been clinging onto a life that, until very recently, I did not want to live. Not even a little bit.

People talk about the stigma of mental illness and that’s under-selling it. I have had to lie about a lot of things these last years. No one wants to be a guinea pig and the one who maybe changes how people think. I have family who see a very clever young woman seemingly wasting her life and faffing around for years at a time. But these are the same family members who think psychiatrists are the devil and that mental illness isn’t real. And some of them don’t know how to keep a secret, so I’ve never told them. My parents are ashamed of me for many reasons but chief among them is my illness and how it has brought me low and unable to do very much. (I was the kid with all the potential.) My friends, many of whom have only known me since I began to get sick, have seemingly given up on me ever doing anything of real worth. And many of them, people MY AGE, the generation who supposedly should have a handle on mental illness and what it might mean, do not ‘get it’. It is as simple, and as devastating, as that. Some kinds of discrimination are alive and well among us.

Part of this is because the perception of people who have Bipolar is that they are cruel and spiteful and manipulative and sometimes violent. And this can sometimes be true. This perception is why I can’t readily admit to having this illness and why I have to explain away gaps on my resume as being times that I ‘cared for a family member who was ill’. It’s as close to the truth as you can tell in a job interview.

This perception, this shame, is partly why I don’t talk about my illness and why I am not honest about it. I have a lot of faults but I am not an unkind person – I would argue that my compassion is actually more of a fault as it tends to get you into all kinds of trouble. But it’s not the only reason I lie. I also don’t talk about it because I hate it so much, and when I talk about it, I sound very angry and very cynical. I am very angry, but I try very hard not to be cynical. I am envious of people with other types of Bipolar who get the episodes that make them productive and feel amazing and that they talk about in practically orgasmic terms. There are inherent dangers to that, of course. But my episodes make me want to die, and for years my life was nothing but one, long, uninterrupted episode.

Last year, for the first time, I finally told someone in a position of authority about my illness. Because of certain truly awful things that have happened to me I am understandably distrustful, particularly of people older than I am. But I am pleased to say that I could not have chosen someone better to tell, to choose to trust. That’s a story for another day, but it’s enough to admit that I managed to make a couple of really good decisions last year that changed my life, and that’s the real heart of the matter. My life is finally getting better. I have purpose for the first time in years.

Perhaps the biggest casualty of my illness has been my sense of hope and the expectation of something better for myself. When you’ve pitched your tent on the edge of hell for as long as I have, you tend to forget that there is a different way to live. I’m trying to be more honest about my illness and about just how scary and isolating it can be. (And it’s not the worst thing that has happened to me.) I do think I have a chance of convincing some people that those who suffer from Bipolar are not necessarily like Billy Chenowith from Six Feet Under, or like my friend’s father, who has what I have and is a degenerative gambler and terrifically unkind person.

Mental illness is a bitch. Part of my wanting to write this blog is to help people understand that some of us who suffer from it are not trying to spread their unhappiness around. We’re just trying to climb out of our empty bathtubs and get on with life. 


  1. I'm not like Billy either... although I do have a thing for Brenda too ;)

    Always here to lend a hand out of the empty tub, Moz xox

  2. I'm so sorry. Being sick, especially when so young, and especially with something that has stigma attached, is just so fucking unfair (pardon my french). I can't even imagine your anger at watching everyone else who gets to take their health for granted. I obviously have no idea what this is truly like, but a health scare a few years ago gave me tiny glimpse into the feelings and it wasn't pretty. Hope writing here about it can help a little bit.

  3. I am very... VERY loathe to say this, because by saying it I sound a lot like a white person who gets around a black person and the first thing out of their mouths is, "I have black friends!" BUT, I'm just going to say it: I dated someone for many years who was a diagnosed bipolar.

    *winces* Do you hate me yet?

    I can't begin to understand myself, but a lot of what you're talking about sounds familiar, because I witnessed him go through it every day. Even the struggles in dealing with other people, people that sometimes slowly gave up on him or told him pointblank he'd let them down. People that didn't understand why it took him so long to graduate. It was rough.

    He's a kindhearted soul, as you are. And it remains scary and isolating. Please keep writing about it. You can't undo the "stigma" entirely but you can chip, chip, chip away at it.

  4. I'll also be here, I'm terrible with words and much more if those words aren't in my mother tongue; I just wanted to say that you're a great person, don't let other people change your mind about that.



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