The short story of my illness is probably pretty typical: abuse as a child; unrecognized and untreated bipolar symptoms from my early teens through age 34; misdiagnosed and given antidepressants that made things worse for two years; discarding therapists like junk mail; becoming suicidal and admitted to the hospital; a new diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and all the fear and shame that went with it; job discrimination; countless medications; 7-minute appointments with psychiatrists; and finally arriving at an uneasy chemical balance with the monster.
I don’t mean to trivialize those experiences. They are all important, and they have brought me to the place I am today, but I’m not happy with that place.
I was adopted as an infant, and I was reunited with my birth mother 9 years ago. When I found my family, I discovered a family tree filled with mental illness, with multiple cases of depression, psychosis, ADHD, and addictions. Through conversations with my b-mom I found I had a clear genetic predisposition for mental health problems.
The genetic lottery struck again when I had my own kids. My son seems to have had a couple episodes of depression, but seems to have recovered successfully. My daughter has had early-onset bipolar since she was about 12, then recently a new diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, and she has been in the hospital twice in the past year. She seems to be unable to make progress and has no measure of independence at this time.
I am also very pessimistic for my own future. My bipolar leaves me without the energy to do anything for my own mental or physical well-being. I take responsibility for my own actions and inactions, and I know I am slowly killing myself one slice of pizza at a time. I know I could make better choices, but I just don’t have the energy or the mental strength to do so. I’m not a strong enough person to keep pushing and fighting without losing myself in the process. I don’t take strength from my battle, rather I am slowly being consumed by it.
I know there are millions of people who successfully fight mental illness, and there are many people who advocate every day against mental health stigma in society. They own their illness, and succeed in the face of longer odds than “normal” people deal with on a daily basis. There are writers and performers and creative people who believe they would not be a complete person without their mental illness. I’m happy for those people. But I’m not one of those people who is proud of their life, and I can never wear my illness as a badge of honor.
I think every day about being bipolar. I struggle with blaming myself for my daughter’s illness and the price my family has paid for my illness. I hide my bipolar by wearing different masks for different social situations. My relationships with my family become more damaged over time. Everything I do, everything I feel, everything I think about is stained with the illness that has taken over my life. I constantly struggle with the effort to live life while the bipolar constantly works to tear apart everything I have. Some days I win, some days I don’t, but I keep swimming upstream toward an unhappy ending.
I fear I am headed toward diabetes or heart disease, while my anxiety convinces me that I will be killed in a car wreck or crushed by a tree or stricken with an aneurysm. There is also the possibility of a loss of cognition and a descent into the fog of dementia. Or, I might end things at a time and place of my choosing. I know that in the end I will lose, regardless of how it happens, and bipolar will be to blame.