Many people have made New Year’s resolutions recently, pledging to give up something that is bad for them, in order to make the first tentative steps towards a healthier future. I too, will be giving up something that is bad for me this new year, something that has had a hold on me for far too long. This year I am giving up being bipolar.
Mental illness is a funny thing, it seems to permeate our very core, and the repercussions of it resonate throughout every area of our life. Many who suffer from mental ill health are crucifyingly socially excluded, sometimes involuntarily through statutory intervention, sometimes psychologically, their demons keeping them at a distance from others, and sometimes through society’s inability to tolerate what at times seems like the intolerable.
I have known few users of mental health services that have not felt the sting of stigma and rejection by the mentally healthy. And the thing is, I get it, unlike physical disabilities, it is hard for people who have never experienced mental distress to comprehend it. They cannot feel the rise and fall of fluctuating moods; they do not have the compulsions to cause (sometimes fatal) harm to themselves. They do not hear the voices constantly screaming abuse from the corner of the room.
And whilst they may be sympathetic for a while, most often, with severe and enduring mental ill health, the rest of the world eventually turns away. Because they have lives to lead, children to bring up, work to go to. No one can be continually on-call for someone who is constantly in crisis. But what this does of course is marginalise people with mental illnesses further. Because, however valid the reason, however understandable, it feels like abandonment just when you need someone most.
And already feeling like a psychological stranger in your own mind, you then begin to feel like a stranger in society. You realise you don’t fit into its mould of what a well person should look like. And that hurts. It is excruciatingly painful to feel that you don’t belong, just as it is for children in a playground, only children have the hope of growing up, of getting strong, of beating the bullies. And hope is the key word here, because as an adult that feels ‘different,’ the constant battles with those bullies inside, and outside, your head, wear you down. They become thieves, thieves that steal your hope.
And in my experience what so often can happen then is that you begin to seek refuge in the chains that bind you, like a psychological version of Stockholm Syndrome, you begin to identify with your tormentor, because it is all you have. In the isolation of living in a world that doesn’t seem to either understand or accept you, your illness becomes the frame of reference with which you define yourself, it becomes like a trusted friend.
For years now I have described myself as ‘being bipolar’ – and this is significant, because I have heard countless other service users do the same. I ‘am’ schizophrenic, I ‘am’ depressed, I ‘am’ a self-harmer, instead of I ‘have’ bipolar,’ I ‘have’ schizophrenia or I harm myself. And you know what, I have never heard a person with a physical illness describe themselves as ‘being’ cancer, or ‘being’ Parkinson’s, or ‘being’ Alzheimer’s.
Because this is what we do you see, amidst the fear and the rejection, so often feeling lost in the darkness we lose our way. We stop being able to see ourselves as people, we stop being able to see ourselves at all. We ‘become’ the thing that ails us, we reduce ourselves to a set of symptoms, we define our identities by our diagnosis.
I have lost count of psychiatric inpatients I have known (myself included at times) that have been discharged from hospital and have proceeded to lead the bleakest of existences imprisoned in their own homes. Shutting themselves away from society because they feel that they do not have a stake in it, that they are not even part of it. Life becomes about seclusion, with the curtains drawn, existing on an hourly basis. Even off the ward, even with their freedom pass, they are not free. They are still detained. Only this section has no end date.
And the thing is it is so easy to forget that the jailor is inside us, and actually, it is us that hold the key, it is us that has the authority to lift this type of psychological section and set ourselves free. Someone pointed out to me recently that after knowing me for quite some time the only thing that they actually knew about me was that I have a child and that I ‘am’ bipolar. And there is something very wrong with this picture.
Because I am so much more than the sum of my symptoms. There are other things about me, I have a passion for politics and social justice, I love retro fashion and vintage interiors, I am an avid cook, I eat crisps compulsively, my eye-shadow always matches my outfit, Nelson Mandela and Gloria Steinem are two of my heroes, I have travelled the world twice and hope to see more of it, music is my soul food, poetry is my passion, American teen dramas are my guilty pleasure. And yet this person knew none of this.
And when I reflected on this I realised that ‘being’ bipolar is all I give people of myself. Weary from a lifetime of rejection because of my ‘otherness’ I now deliberately cast myself in that role, I project my disability outward like a silent challenge. ‘I’m bipolar. Go on reject me,’ is what I’m really saying to people when I tell them about my condition. But in doing so I disable myself more, I disable any ability to build new relationships on any sort of equal footing. Because then people treat me differently. They treat me like I’m ill. They treat me like I ‘am’ bipolar.
So here’s the thing about having a mental disability, it is like being part of a club, service users tend to stick to friendships with other service users, because it feels like they are the only people who can understand the struggles. And of course membership to this club is entirely exclusive. And that fuels the cycle of exclusion, because just as we have so often felt rejected by society, we begin to reject it. We form our own counter-culture, where people speak the language of the wards, where we define ourselves by diagnostic criteria, where our natural habitat is the hospital.
And if hospital is our ‘home,’ then the professionals are our parents, we look to them for everything, our medicines are our daily meals, therapy is our classroom, the CPNS are like the kindly aunties contrasting the strict father psychiatrists, other service users are our siblings. And we swallow our psychiatric sweeties and consume the services like good little children, because we don’t want to leave home yet, we are not ready to leave our family behind. Because it is the only time we have ever felt like we belonged.
But you know what, at some point, everyone has to leave home. Everyone has to get bigger and stronger in order to beat those schoolyard bullies and grow. And when you leave the comfort of the family nest it is scary. The real world is petrifying, just like when you go to university at 18 and everything seems big and frightening, and people seem strange and different to you. Leaving services is like this, because when you’ve been out of the game for a long time you forget what the real world looks like, you forget how people who are not ill communicate.
Of course mental illness is not easily ‘cured’, like epilepsy or diabetes it is often chronic and requires lifelong management, but we do not have to become our illness. We can just have our illness, just like we have blue eyes or blonde hair. It is not who we are, it’s something we have. And that is why I am surrendering my membership to this club, because I no longer want to ‘be’ bipolar, it is hard and scary to give up being special, but you know what, I’d rather just be ordinary.
When Nelson Mandela walked free from jail in 1990 he spoke famously about making peace with his past and forgiving his enemies, because, he said, if he didn’t he would have remained imprisoned. Having a mental illness is a bit like that, only the jail is your own mind and the enemy is the thing that ails it. Sometimes you have to let go of that version of yourself in order to be free.
Sometimes you have to open those curtains in order to let the sunlight of the outside world in. And this is our ‘long walk to freedom,’ this is the path we travel. Sometimes we need to sit by the road for a while, sometimes we need a break from the journey, to take a minute, put the bags down and have a rest, but you know what, that’s OK. And sometimes we lose people along the way, people who just don’t want to make that journey with us. And that’s OK too. It’s tricky terrain, sometimes the territory is hostile. It’s not for everyone. In her final column for The Guardian a month ago the late Carrie Fisher advised a reader with bipolar who had reached out:
“You don’t have to like doing a lot of what you do, you just have to do it. You can let it all fall down and feel defeated and hopeless and that you’re done. But you reached out to me – that took courage. Now build on that. Move through those feelings and meet me on the other side. As your bipolar sister, I’ll be watching. Now get out there and show me and you what you can do.”
Amen to that.