[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.