I remember when mental illness was a social stigma… There was no applause… no public accolades for undergoing treatment. It was commitment, plain and simple. Mental illness was a character defect-- cause for social isolation, job discrimination, and shame. There were no posh clinics; only dark corridors locked away from the world. At 22, I was ushered through those padlocked gates. I met the faces of psychosis and schizophrenia; the lost souls haunted by delusions and dementia. Many, like me, were buried under despair so deep; we had pursued a death of our own design. You lowered your head as you walked those halls, fearful of seeing your pain in another’s eyes.
After six weeks of therapy, my cognitive exorcism was deemed successful. I rejoined the world, unaware that the true nature of my illness remained hidden, and a long hazardous highway stretched out ahead of me. Burning to prove myself, I learned the power of overcompensation, and rose like the young phoenix. For more than two decades I successfully climbed the ranks of non-profit management.
During those years, the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, opening doors for many individuals living with mental and physical challenges. Mental health hit the mainstream with vast economic impact. Corporate benefits expanded to include a mental health component…If you weren’t on Prozac, you knew someone who was… AND every new drug for anxiety or depression was backed by a seven-figure marketing campaign. NO potential employer could ever again ask about my mental health history.
Confident my demons were in the past, I hardly noticed as my equilibrium progressively intertwined with emotional extremes. I began fighting to function on a sustained basis, burning through sick leave like a spark on gasoline. Vicious rages contorted me like a willow in a Nor’easter. The tide surged in and the foundation of my life crumbled in its wake. Only then, did I learn my demon’s name…I was one of more than 5 million Americans living with bipolar disorder. Untreated, this genetic illness exacerbates, slowly decimating a person’s ability to live a “normal” life… tossing them between cycles of paralyzing depression and self-destructive mania. Fifty percent with the disorder attempt suicide at least once. Of those, one in eight succeeds in their efforts to end life. I am well-acquainted with that desire to die.
Ignorance about this illness persists, despite legislation and health benefits. Trust me: You cannot “just snap out of it.” You do not choose to lose your career, your friends or your life. You come to accept that your sanity, EVEN your survival, will forever depend on a daily regimen of ever-changing medications.
I have a role in controlling this illness.Every setback teaches me something…Behaviors, triggers, responses–how to reach out. I no longer fear the social stigma or silent prejudice harbored by some. I must forgive those who stepped away along the ugly course of my illness.It takes stamina and understanding to endure my erratic and irrational behavior... to seek me out when I withdraw from life…to listen as I speed through a digressive one-way discourse…to painfully watch my self-abuse. To be the last barricade between me and death...Those who love me enough to ride it out are my blessing and my strength. I HAVE a disorder…It does not define me. I remain the loving, intelligent, and compassionate woman I have always been. This illness will not beat me! I WILL find joy in the middle ground.