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From Aspirin to Abilify

[Editor’s Note: Trigger warning for discussion of attempted suicide.]

I think the first time I really, truly realized that something was very wrong, I’d already downed half a bottle of aspirin and locked myself in the bathroom.

I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t just continue gulping down the rest of the bottle. Maybe it was my wife pounding at the door, maybe it was regret, maybe I just didn’t even care enough to finish what I’d started. Either way, I spent the early hours of my 21st birthday in the Emergency Room and then my home, with my wife watching me vomit for what felt like forever.

As with most people who have attempted suicide, I was sent by a social worker to therapy. When the psychologist told me, “you have bipolar disorder,” I’ll admit it, I cried. Not because I was afraid of the illness. I’d dealt with it for so long already, and, if I’m honest with myself, I’d always had an inkling that’s what it was. I was more afraid of everyone else, of what that diagnosis would mean for me, for my future.

Like a lot of kids, I had a lot of plans for myself. They changed often, and varied between the achievable and unreal. But none of them included having bipolar disorder, or dealing with the psychological and physical effects. And most terrifying of all, none of them included the societal backlash of having a mental illness.

According to the 2006 National Stigma Study-Replication, while there was significant growth in the education on the neuro-biological causes of mental illness, attitudes towards those with mental disorders remained relatively stagnant. There’s still a prevailing stigma of fear and distrust of those with mental disorders. They’re seen as unpredictable and violent (even though those with mental illness are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence).

That fear translates into self-image issues. Thanks to a combination of media portrayal of mental illness and a lack of education, my already fairly low self-esteem was heading for a nose-dive.

What I was dealing with was internalized ableism, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I believed that as long as I had this illness, all that I wanted to accomplish was impossible, and that I’d never have a fulfilling life. Because of our attitudes towards mental illness, being told you have a bipolar disorder equates with being told you’re broken. It’s a sign of weakness, something to be shameful about. Faced with that, I did what most people would do- I ignored it.

For years, I wore the label of bipolar around my neck. It sounds odd, but as long as I ignored the effects on myself and those around me, I felt like I could claim the label while being unaffected. I took my pills, I briefly went to therapy, and I was cured. I ignored my aggressive outbursts where I’d be irritable and confrontational, how I cycled between heightened productivity and debilitating depression.

But it became heavier and heavier as the years went on. I would occasionally change medications, but it still wore on me. I had a variety of excuses – like a lot of college students I struggled with making ends meet. But as I moved through college, graduated, and got a good job doing what I loved, my excuses became thinner and thinner.

Then one morning, instead of making my way to the office, I was off to the emergency room, and then to inpatient therapy. It had been four years, and I was back to where I started. I hadn’t been cured. I still had bipolar disorder, was still dealing with my illness, and this time I couldn’t ignore or downplay it.

The internalized ableism I was experiencing prevented me from seeking the help I needed. This wasn’t an isolated phenomena though. Many people with mental illness internalize stigma, ultimately decreasing the likelihood of seeking treatment.

Since my hospitalization, I’ve spent many hours learning about bipolar disorder, attending therapy, working with my doctors on a medication regimen that works for me, and attending local Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance meetings.

I can’t stand up and say, “I beat bipolar disorder.” I’ll never be cured, but I’m learning how to manage my symptoms in a way that keeps me healthy and productive. It’s a constant struggle, but I have supportive and understanding family and friends that have helped me through.

By Bipolar Gurl

Bipolar Gurl is an artist and... well, that's about it really. Multi-talented she is not.

11 replies on “From Aspirin to Abilify”

I feel you- I have depression, rather than bipolar disorder, but I’m still working out my own ableism. One thing my psychologist said that has helped is to think about how you would treat a friend with the same problem. If you wouldn’t think/say something to your friend because it is hurtful, mean, and not true, why would you say it to/about yourself?

Great article, I’m looking forward to reading more!

 

I certainly think there are things that can’t be helped. The effects of my illness had me doing some pretty outlandish things before I was diagnosed. I think there are some things that can’t be controlled- mental illness can’t be cured, we can only alleviate the symptoms. But there are limits to what people can control.

Which isn’t to say people should be given a free pass. I think there’s something to be said about attending therapy and working with a psychiatrist. And there are certainly techniques to use to help control symptoms. But my emphasis would be on help- it doesn’t mean there won’t be breaks. I have times where I’m very in control of my illness, and times where it gets away with me.

I especially meant to say that people who aren’t suffering from it use it as the I’m Different/Woe is me excuse. Of my few friends with mental illnesses, I have never heard them use it as an excuse for not doing homework/caring about someone’s story/whatever. They keep it close to silent.

Thanks for the article.

There is a book you must read, by Kay Redfield Jamison, called Touched With Fire. She is a prominent psychologist who also has bipolar disorder, and researches several brilliant minds who also had the same illness. It’s fascinating, and shows the flashes of brilliance that can come with bipolar, as well as the awful stuff.

 

That book has been highly recommended to me, I should probably get off my butt and read it! Especially being one of the ‘creative’ people who (attempts!) to make a living off of those flashes of brilliance.

I’m kind of on the fence as far as seeing the upsides of mental illnesses. I think my problem is that I tend to differentiate what’s the illness and what’s just the person’s personality, so I’m afraid that if I start associating the ‘upsides’ with the illness instead of the person, I’m devaluing their personal strengths. On the other hand, I’m also on the fence about whether you really can or should differentiate between the illness and the person, because they’re so intrinsically entwined. It’s a fine line that I’ve been debating for a while.

Come, join those of us who embrace our disabilities as an essential part of who we are! it’s beautiful in here! :)

I mean, you still deal with ableism. You still have to work on digging out the bits of ableism you’ve internalized. But it’s a wonderful thing to be able to embrace all of you, to see yourself as just another part of the great diversity that is humanity. It’s wonderful.

Hello, fellow Bipolar! I certainly can empathize with you here, and I appreciate you writing this. I’ve had Bipolar I for years now, and I’m only just starting to really get used to it. I have never been ashamed of or hidden my illness, and I embrace it because it’s part of who I am. I don’t do traditional psychiatric medicine because I don’t care for its effect on me, though I do go to therapy and do self-therapy and self-care. I love hearing the tales of others, and seeing how we differ. So many people lump us all into one big category and don’t realize that we are individuals. I wish you luck in your journey, and feel free to message me if you ever need to talk!

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