In a post I published earlier this week, I said that I would be discussing issues around mental health and my own experiences. I hope that by doing so, I might play a very tiny role in reducing the stigma and shame that surrounds mental health illness.
In October 2013 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For a long time I had suspected that I may be suffering with bipolar. I consulted Dr Google many times and my symptoms were congruent with the diagnosis. I had put off going to see a psychiatrist, as I was frightened of what they might say. I’ve been in therapy since I was 18 and had seen a psychiatrist previously for depression. However, having bipolar seemed more shameful and burdensome than bog standard depression.
After a period of mania and then deep depression, and a lot of encouragement from my therapist, I finally sought help. I found myself in a doctor’s office in South London and he delivered the news in cold clinical terms, typical of a shrink:
‘You have bipolar type two with rapid cycling. I’m surprised that no one has picked up on this before. It’s obvious.’
His words were no surprise, but I went into a state of shock nonetheless. I trudged to the tube station and made the journey home in a befuddled daze. I told my mum and my husband and a couple of very close confidants, but kept the news from most of my friends. I was so ashamed and upset that I couldn’t bear to tell them.
I was prescribed drugs to steady my fluctuating moods, but I delayed treatment. Eventually a very close friend, who has a few medical issues herself, persuaded me to bite the bullet and go to the pharmacy. I’m lucky that my local chemist is kindness personified. I handed over the prescription, close to tears. He came out from behind the counter, took me aside and gently asked me what the drugs were for. I told him I had bipolar. He smiled, nodded and fetched my medicine. I procrastinated further over taking the meds, once I started taking the drugs, I would be forced to accept my situation. I also had the impression that taking high doses of medication was not good for me. How could pumping my body full of chemicals possibly be healthy?
I have since come to realise that medication is essential for the treatment of my condition. But often non-medical professionals insist that prescription medication is bad and I should attempt to treat my bipolar with natural remedies, meditation or changes to my diet. Whilst a healthy lifestyle is very helpful for maintaining equilibrium, it does not replace appropriate medication. There seems to be a degree of judgement around western medicine, particularly in the treatment of mental health. I believe this to be ignorant and misleading.
When you have a mental health condition, it feels like an indictment against your whole person, body and soul. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was broken and faulty. My vulnerabilities appeared to be symptomatic of a profound and unavoidable inadequacy. People around me seemed to cope with the minor slings and arrows of life, while I would spin into mania and make terrible decisions, or become so depressed that I thought of suicide several times a day. Throughout this, I mostly managed to prop up a high functioning façade; colleagues and friends thought I was doing fine. I became an expert at putting on a good front, despite my undulating inner turmoil.
After years of shame and secrecy, I finally feel comfortable enough to speak openly about my bipolar. I’ve realised that there is nothing to be ashamed of and the stigma needs to be dispelled. Mental health conditions should be akin to suffering from asthma or high blood pressure. It’s a potentially life threatening illness that needs daily medication and due care, but it does not besmirch the person suffering.
I’ll be writing more about this subject next week. To anyone who has been recently diagnosed with a mental health illness, I wish you all the best. Don’t be ashamed, it’s not your fault and with proper treatment, there is no reason why you should not live a productive and satisfying life.