From the first time I seriously considered taking my own life at 12 to the time I was taken away in the back of an ambulance to a psychiatric hospital, 6 years had passed. It was 6 years filled with shame and silence. I got extremely lucky and received the help I needed to survive. But for some, 6 years is too long to suffer alone, and not everyone survives.
While I don’t discuss my struggles with mental illness at every handshake, I’m also not at all hesitant to talk about my ongoing battles with Bipolar Disorder. What if we lived in a world where mental health was regarded with the same openness and respect as physical health? Where no child would be ashamed to tell their mother, “I feel depressed,” or where no student would feel judged or like they had failed themselves for taking what can sometimes be life-saving medication? This is the type of world I want to live in, and I know we won’t get there if we aren’t willing to be open abut mental illness.
Within months of my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder at age 18, I was receiving the treatment I needed and doing better than I could have imagined in years. This treatment included the correct dose of lithium, group therapy, and individual therapy that would continue for years down the road. It has dawned on me since that the 6 years I was too ashamed and afraid to ask for help could have been 6 years of meaningful treatment, and far less suffering on mine and my family’s part. And it deeply concerns me that, due to stigma and lack of mental health resources, there are people like me out there who are still “In hiding” with their illness, either too afraid or unsure of where to turn for help.
The bottom line is, you shouldn’t have to need inpatient treatment, IV’s, ambulance rides, and rock bottom before we stop ignoring mental illness. We need to bring these disorders out of the darkness and into a place where it is acceptable to acknowledge them and ask for help.
Even after years of leading a stable, mostly healthy life thanks to ongoing treatment, I still fight every day to push back on the stigma around mental illness. Messages from society tell me that taking pills makes me a failure, or that maybe I’m just not trying hard enough to maintain my own happiness and sanity. But from those 6 years of sickness, I can assure you: no amount of miles run, pounds lost, calories logged, cuts on the skin - nothing can bring me back to center and allow me to live that centered, healthy life like lithium. Much like diabetes or cancer, there are many aspects of our health we can control to prevent acquiring an illness. And much like diabetes and cancer, some people acquire an illness regardless of how healthy they otherwise try to be: it is at least in part biological. This doesn’t mean every aspect of our illness is out of our control. It just means that denying treatment - be it insulin, chemotherapy, or mood stabilizers - would be unwise and not holistic.
When I struggle to take my medications as prescribed, as is common in Bipolar Disorder, I try to remember how far I have come since those dark 6 years. Through my teens, I never pictured a life for myself past 20, and now that is something I build upon every day. I try and remember those who helped me to get well, and how it would seem to them if I ditched taking medicine and taking care of myself simply because I was too worried or ashamed what other people thought.
It amazes me every day the life I have been able to lead thanks to treatment. But I know this much: hospitalization, medication, and therapy alone would never have been enough if I didn’t have a loving and supportive family, group of friends, and boyfriend behind me. As my silence was shattered, I was able to stare mental illness head on and slowly deconstruct the things that made him so impossible to combat. The monster wasn’t nearly as scary once he was out from under the bed - once I saw him in plain daylight and started to better understand how his devilish tactics worked.
Nobody deserves the shame and silence associated with mental illness. These illnesses are not character defects. They’re not to be taken lightly. And they’re not to be shushed about, shoved into closets, or ignored, because that’s when things get ugly. It is so important to support one another, let each other know we’re not alone in our fights, and stamp out stigma best we can until one day, nobody will die trying to keep being sick a secret.