Last Tuesday, I sat on my psychiatrist’s couch and explained everything. I told him all there is to tell and he said what he has said so many times before, “Begin again.” That’s the exciting, daunting, stupid, fantastic news. When this happens, no matter how you got here, the only thing to do is begin again. This treatment plan, Begin Again, can feel insultingly oversimplified, but it is the truest thing I’ve learned about my illness.
I am not ashamed of my past journeys with mental illness or the paths it took me on. I am grateful to those who stood by me and believed in me. To those I brought pain and pushed away, I am sorry. In the end, we are all on this journey through life together. Let us start holding hands and learning from one another. Let us stop the stigma.
I think, in part, that I was hoping for a miracle cure, that I would eat these magic beans and become a Normal Person, but I know how unlikely that is. Still, it’s the dream of almost every person living with a mental illness that they will somehow attain balance and stability and lead a normal life, and I’m no different.
With bipolar disorder, it’s a given that I will crash into deep depressions out of thin air for days or weeks at a time. Or that I will inevitably snap into manic episodes for no reason for long stretches as well. Or the worst. A mixed state. Thinking about those unbearable bouts terrifies me. Since I am so sure these unpredictable periods of my life will come into play every single year, I spend all of the time when I’m not “in” one of those three states worrying about when they will hit.
You and me. Us. It isn’t easy. We both bring our own set of challenges to the relationship, but somehow they are what has made are love stronger. It is in the difficult times that love is seen most clearly and I know without a shadow of a doubt that you love me exactly as I am.
Being told to calm down and get over it implies that the person experiencing the panic attack is doing so by choice, a common misconception in the day-to-day world, and a stigma that needs to be smashed. Between three and six million people in the U.S. struggle with some form of panic disorder. It can come at any age, but it most often begins in young adulthood, and often run in families. Some people may only experience one panic attack in their lifetime, while others may develop a disabling disorder if the symptoms go untreated.
In reality, being unwell may not be hard, but it can be incredibly painful. It can be isolating. It can be complicated. Juggling the day to day tasks of living can be an effort. There is too much or not enough of everything. Things are too bright or too dim. Things are too big or too small.
Through a 12-step program, I tried coping with my new, clean life. But I was still consumed with self-loathing, insecurities, imaginary judgments, and panic attacks. At the same time, I had lofty thoughts and philosophies, grand plans and delusions. I was right back in the kind of spiraling bipolar episode I’d been bandaging for more than seven years.
There are times when, if it’s brought to my attention, I can notice that the natural exuberance is missing, that the interconnectedness of everything is minimized by the meds. The talent is still there, but I’m delivering it through reduced affect, an emotional blunting that appears regardless of whether emotion is actually reduced or not. This is rock and roll and I’m leaving it all on the stage, except that it’s only noticeable if you close your eyes.