So, let’s talk about it…
This is something that is not only inwardly important to me, but something that my life is immersed in. It is also something that I have been wanting to voice my views on and experiences with for quite a while, but have never found an appropriate outlet to do so.
I work in a group home with people living with mental and physical disabilities.
I work and go to school with people who are living with disabilities, visible or not.
I have friends and family members whose lives are deeply affected by mental illness.
I suffer from mental illness, too.
It isn’t something that I talk about with people I don’t know, it isn’t something that I usually voluntarily share, and it isn’t something that I have completely come to terms with, yet. I probably never would have publicly gone further than some ironic tweets about my experiences with mental illness, if it hadn’t been for two conversations that I was included in on campus in the past week.
“So are you, like, high functioning?”
What does that even mean?!
How does a person respond, in front of a group of strangers, when asked if one is high functioning? Especially when one barely even admits to having mental illness to begin with.
That was the first thing that ran through my mind, after the panic (and silent expletives) subsided.
“Well, yeah, everyone has mental illness.”
What? Is this some sort of a joke?
You, fellow human, are mistaken.
I’m no expert (give me a few years and a few college degrees and surely I’ll get there), but I can almost positively say that not everyone has mental illness. I can back this up by saying that I may perhaps have sat through a few psychology courses since starting school. Everyone goes through a hard time, at one point or another, but that is completely different than having diagnosed (or undiagnosed) mental illness.
So, why was I offended and shocked by being asked if I was “high functioning” by a near-complete stranger, you may ask?
It’s rude and insensitive. Even if I lived with a mental illness or a mental impairment that caused me to be less able to do certain typical things, why would it matter? Would that make me less of a human?
I’m tired. I’m tired of hearing people say that the weather is bipolar, that so-and-so is bipolar, that they feel bipolar today. This illness has rocked my world in the worst possible way. A year ago today, I can nearly guarantee you I was doing one of 2 things. Sleeping or sobbing. Why, you may ask? Because I spent the winter of my freshman year nearly unable to get out of bed. Why? Because my brain told me I couldn’t. Let that sink in for a minute. Sorry, family and friends. Freshman year wasn’t as great as you thought it was. Sure, I had a lot of fun and met great people. But on the flip side of that, I also lived with an underlying sense of extreme dread and devastation regarding literally every aspect of life.
High, you say? Please define it. How high do you mean? Are my manic highs high enough, or do I need to go higher than that? Is not sleeping for weeks and then crashing for months to make up for it your idea of high functioning? How high do we take this? Sure, if you asked me I would probably tell you that I could do anything. But it sure feels great to be able to do anything when you are used to being able to do nothing. This feeling is intoxicating. Papers are a breeze, art projects literally flow out of my fingertips, and I feel witty as heck. Now whether I actually sound witty is another thing. I probably don’t. I probably seem jittery and weird. Remember in high school when I went from sleeping in class to talking nonstop? Me, too. Which, by the way, is all a great thing to dwell on when the manic state ends and I’m left with nothing but emptiness and regret for everything that I’ve ever said. Ever.
How post-traumatically stressed do I have to be for people to quit asking me why I stayed when things were so bad? They thought I was smarter than that, they thought I was stronger. Am I? Do I have to be stronger than that? They don’t know the details, but they cannot fathom why I would willingly stay in a situation I had no escape from. What a world, where being forced to stay is the victim’s fault. I guess I thought I was stronger than that, too. How many years of hypervigilance lay in front of me waiting to unfold, waiting to catch me off guard in the worst possible moments. How many more times will I have to fear being assaulted while doing laundry, while waiting for coffee? How many times will my mind freeze in nightmares at night that I can’t escape from, only to have my cat paw me awake? How many times? How many more times will I have to be the only one who believes me? I’m tired of hearing people say “they just look so normal” when looking at offenders. They are normal. Until they aren’t. Then your life comes crashing down, slowly but steadily. At least it’s consistent, right?
Do I blame the people who ask these questions? No. I’m just sick of being the one who has to answer them in the most abrupt of ways.
How am I supposed to come up with a coherent answer to a question like “so are you high functioning?” when I am being verbally slapped in the face by it?
It would be so much more simple to shape our society into one that instead asks “to what extent does your mental illness affect you?”
But will that happen?
I’m not sure. For starters, we need to be able to talk about it. I need to be able to share my story, not that this is nearly all of it, and you need to be able to share yours (not that you have to), without fearing shame or differential treatment.
Will I probably have to be on medication my whole life? Yep. Anti-psychotic medication, to be specific. And how does it make me feel to know that the same medication that stops me from making an utter mess of my life also makes me gain tremendous amounts of weight (15 pounds, to be specific), feel exhausted if taken in too high of a dose, and makes me susceptible to a myriad of other conditions and disorders? It makes me feel fearful. What a unique feeling to be medically inclined to feel better, only to realize that none of my clothes fit the same way, or that my speech slurs way more than it used to, or that I have a hard time staying awake during the day- things that all make me feel worse. What a Catch-22. To feel worse, or to feel way worse. I have chosen to the lesser of the two evils.
Having severe and unpredictable mental illness is like waking up fearing the worst, and then nothing bad happens. And then you expect the best and get hit by a ton of bricks. Or in my case, being hit by digs at my neurochemistry while simply trying to obtain a college degree. Or feeling like you have to hide your brain’s makeup in order to fit in. What a concept. When’s the last time that you needed to hide your RBC count in order to fit in? But yet my DNA and unbalanced neurotransmitters somehow make me feel so different. So separated from everyone else. I don’t want sympathy. I don’t want to be coddled. I just want to be able to live with an illness that I didn’t choose, an illness that I don’t necessarily want, and not have to stress over whether or not to check the “disability” box on job applications because it prefaces bipolar disorder or PTSD.
I fear people not being able to look past that checked box.
I fear the face that people make when I say I suffer from mental illness.
It’s a frozen half-smile that slowly turns into a frown.
Almost every time.
But guess what? My life is kick-ass. I am kicking ass. I made the Dean’s List this past semester. I photograph weddings. I read books and I started a blog. I have great friends, ones who are, like Jenna, sisters I can go to with anything. (Even with the crazy idea of coming clean about my mental illness on a blog (like it’s some sort of a crime)). I have cats, and I’m in love with the greatest human ever. And we got new pots and pans for Christmas. And know what? They are great. They are all great.
I have bipolar disorder. I have PTSD. I have anxiety and depression. Oh, hello? Yes, still here. Still kickin’ ass.
In a few pages,