From Strong to Weak and Back Again
No one should have to endure mental illness alone.
As humans, we need other humans. Connections are what keep us rising day after day. Living with mental illness creates a need that reaches beyond connection. We need a support team able and willing to face whatever comes because life can get pretty gnarly when shit goes down — not currently in our “right minds” shit. It happens sometimes despite my best efforts to remain high-functioning.
Self awareness is tainted when, in my case, I’m manic, melancholic or (my favorite) mixed. A mixed bipolar episode is when I experience melancholy and mania at the same time. They are common but beyond difficult to describe — especially when mania carries this whole “out of body” sort of scenario.
A good support team has to be able to step in and bring about the self awareness I need through alternative means.
This can be simple.
A coworker once approached me after reports of a rather raucous holiday weekend reached her. She called me into her office and made it clear her intentions were of the most serious nature. “Are you okay,” she asked? No one ever asked me if I was okay. I burst into tears and she drove me straight to my doctor’s office.
It isn’t always that simple.
Fast forward a few years — I was both suicidal and deep in bipolar debt. The only symptom I allowed was a dip in my job performance. I’m an “exceeds expectations” kind of employee and the review I received that year further broke me. It was the catalyst that sent me careening down an even darker path from which I finally found the strength to do the one thing that seemed unbearably out of reach.
With no one to intercede for me, I asked for help.
I am no good at asking for help. More than one friend will use the word “strong” when asked to describe me. Physically? Sure. Mentally? Most of the time. Like a cat, I’m far too adept at hiding pain. I am a master at masking melancholy.
I have openly asked for help (in regard to my mental illness) exactly twice. The first time led to my diagnosis. The second time saved my life, but I still had to live with a shit employee performance review and a ton of debt. These were the extremes — when I, or someone I loved, was in harm’s way due to my instability. At neither of these points did I have the support team I needed.
To be on the support team for someone like me, there are some key points to remember:
Just because you are family to someone with a mental illness does not mean you are a mental health advocate — nor do you qualify for their support team by default.
You have to replace supposition and misconception with constant education and understanding. A lot we know about bipolar disorder has changed in the 27 years since my diagnosis. If you can’t keep up, you can’t be on my team.
I have an illness.
My d i s e a s e has to be treated with the same care and attention as any physical disease.
I still have very real feelings.
Not every emotional outburst is the result of my medication being off-kilter or signal that I’m sliding into a bout of paranoia. In fact, I keep things close enough in check that most of the time, I’m doing okay. My feelings are natural, not bloated. Consider that something else may be upsetting me. If I’m particularly distant or hostile, consider that those feelings may have something to do with you… and that I’m not overreacting.
I can be cruel.
It sucks. It’s no point of pride. When pushed to the brink of madness by physical or emotional exhaustion, I tend to say shit I don’t mean. I have failings, sure, but most of the time I’m a pretty nice person. Cruelness is a symptom. I may not even remember what I have said or done — or the full implication may not “hit me” for weeks or months. I do try to make amends. Sometimes this makes being on my team difficult. If I have hurt you in the past, I truly apologize.
You cannot replace my medical team.
Medical practitioners are part of my support team but you are not part of my medical team. Do not WebMD me. Do intercede if I seem unstable. Do not recommend medications you see on television. Do ask if I feel my meds are still working. Do not act like my therapist. Do ask if I’m okay.
My mental health is ultimately my responsibility.
I still have to own my own actions. I live with a multitude of long-range consequences. Bipolar disorder affects not only me, but everyone around me — especially my support team. And sometimes that support team has to change, even the medical team.
So, for the third time, many months after I should have, I finally asked for help.
I’m so tired of the word “unprecedented,” but the last three years have been brutal (on many of us, not just me) and riddled with enormous life alterations. I’m a fan of change, but the big emotions have been excessive. There has been job stuff. Loss of friend stuff. Children stuff. More job stuff. Separation from family stuff. So. Much. Stuff. And I — I am not okay.
This is me relinquishing my weaknesses and finding strength in support.
I am not okay enough that I started talk therapy after far too many years.
I am not okay enough that I found counseling alone inadequate.
I am not okay enough that I started the process of a full psychiatric reevaluation.
I am not okay enough that I sidelined individuals who hinder my mental recovery.
I am not okay enough that I am actively telling friends and chosen family and coworkers.
I am not okay enough that I’m telling you —
just in case you too need to stop masking and ask for help.