The first thing someone says when I tell them I have bipolar, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder is, “I’m sorry.”
For a long time, I was sorry too.
Bipolar runs in my family, so I knew the harsh realities of this untreated illness. A family member faked his own death after a counterfeiting spending spree. My grandfather told people that I would die in a car accident, and he would take my body up to the mountain and bring me back to life.
When I was younger, surrounded by this family chaos, it was easy to tell myself, “They are crazy!” I bought into many of the stigmas of mental illness — that those with mental illness are unpredictable, incompetent, and have trouble holding down a job.
I thought I was different. I was married to a hospital CEO, attended charity events, lived in a beautiful home, and had three healthy children. Yet, life felt unbearable. The stigmas around mental illness kept me from getting the help I desperately needed, so I continued to suffer in silence.
More than 50 percent of people in the United States will experience a mental illness or disorder during their lifetime. Mental illness and disorders are mostly considered negative. To many people who don’t have a mental illness, and even those who do suffer with a mental illness, view it as a personal failure or weakness. And I was no different.
In 2007, my husband and an emergency room doctor involuntarily committed me to a psychiatric hospital because I had become extremely suicidal. When the psychiatric counselor sat me down and uttered the three words, “You are bipolar,” I felt as if I was being handed a life sentence for something I didn’t do.
The additional disorders of OCD and anxiety only added to my invisible chains. I rejected the idea of mental illness and its permanence. The painful truth that I was going to have to manage these illnesses for the rest of my life filled me with grief. I began to mourn the life I thought I could no longer have.
As a psychiatric patient, the harmful stigmatizing words associated with mental illness, such as crazy, psycho, or delusional took on a whole new meaning. In 2015, I attempted suicide. That night I swallowed hundreds of pills, certain my life was worthless, I was worthless, and the world would be better off without me. Fortunately, the ER doctors disagreed and worked to save my life.
It was not difficult for me to stop using stigmatizing language about others, but to stop stigmatizing myself was a different story. I had to change my mindset from “I am bipolar” or “I am OCD” to “I have bipolar and OCD disorders.”
Millions of people suffer from different types of illnesses, and they do not say, “I am cancer” or “I am heart disease.” It is time to understand that those with mental illness are more than their diagnosis.
As I embraced treatment and developed skills, I started finding hidden strengths in my mental illness. Rarely do people talk about the positives that come with a mental illness.
My OCD gives me a keen eye for detail and a determination to successfully attain goals. Anxiety has taught me courage as I face my fears and move forward through each day. My bipolar has given me creativity and resilience.
Living with pain has made me sensitive to the pain in others and an understanding of what they need. I have experienced many depressive episodes and know firsthand that you can come out of them stronger, more empathic, and grateful for even the smallest things in life.
A wise therapist explained to me that I could lie in bed all day in pain or if I wanted a life worth living, I had to get out of bed most days and find my purpose, even while in pain.
Mental health advocacy work of destigmatizing mental illness — the very thing I struggled with — became my passion. I set out with my daughter in 2019 to raise mental health awareness one local library at a time by traveling to all 50 states donating my memoir. The pandemic forced us to stop in 2020.
We recently re-started our journey and visited South Dakota, state number 45. I received an email from a woman’s prison coordinator in South Dakota asking if I would donate copies of my memoir to the prison library and conduct a book club for the female inmates.
This email — along with so many others — was a reminder that just because a person suffers from a mental health disorder doesn’t mean they cannot make an impact.
I learned the hard way that when a person stigmatizes others or themselves, it is not only extremely damaging, but keeps them from receiving treatment and experiencing the gifts mental illness has to offer.
Every person needs to know they have a life worth living.
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