Personal Experiences Regarding Mental Illness and the Associated Stigma
Trigger Warning: This particular article goes into the darker side of Mental Illness, my experiences, and references suicide and self harm, for those feeling particularly sensitive to these topics, please consider this warning before continuing.
Mental Illness doesn't discriminate, it can affect anyone, it's not just the lower socio-economic groups or the people with lower levels of education that can be affected.
I have a Mental Illness. I have Bipolar Disorder, with overlapping Borderline Personalty Disorder (BPD) tendencies, meaning that I exhibit some of the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder on their own, although I don't quite have all the associated symptoms required for a diagnosis of BPD and most of these symptoms generally are only present during a Bipolar episode.
Bipolar Disorder is a mood disorder and was once known as manic depressive disorder or manic depression. It is believed to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
In a nutshell people with Bipolar Disorder experience extreme highs (mania) and extreme lows (depression), alone with normal baseline moods in between, episodes and last anywhere from days to months and the normal baseline moods can be present for years, without any signs of mania or depression
Mania and Depression Explained
Manic Episodes tend to be characterized by extreme highs - higher than normal energy levels, feeling of euphoria, rapid speech, racing thoughts, irritability, difficulties concentrating, and in some cases psychosis (hallucinations and delusions)
Depressive Episodes tend to be characterized by extreme lows - depression, crying, loss if interest in hobbies, lack of motivation, no energy, self harm, suicide ideation and in some cases suicide attempts.
Mixed Episodes can also occur, in mixed episodes people can exhibit both symptoms of a manic episode and of a depressive episode.
Personally I have experienced both the highs and the lows of this disorder, I suffered from the uncontrollable manic highs and have also suffered the depressive lows.
However, in the past I suffered more from the depressive lows. During these lows, I have had no motivation, no energy, no appetite, lose weight, I socially isolate myself, become very withdrawn, find it difficult to even get out of bed and shower each day and have eve self harmed and attempted suicide.
During my manic episodes I would experience the elevated moods, feel that I could do anything, hardly slept, talked a lot, because irritable and edgy and one one occasion suffered from psychosis, mostly delusions.
Originally I was given a diagnosis of Bipolar II meaning that I experienced more subtle and less severe manic episodes. Sadly, with age, that has changed to Bipolar I meaning now I experience full blown mania.
My experiences date back to my early teens and continued through adulthood, it wasn't until I was around 26 that a diagnosis was finally confirmed, and I was told I had Bipolar Disorder.
Unfortunately it is not uncommon for Bipolar Disorder to remain undiagnosed for many years, usually people receive many diagnoses before a diagnosis of Bipolar is finally given. I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Social Phobia, Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia, before finally being diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder. It didn't help that I knew none of these diagnoses were correct, so I stopped seeing these professionals, remained untreated and refused help.
Why I Avoided Treatment
Despite everything I was going though and everything I was experiencing I still refused help and remained untreated for several years, I only reached out again for Psychiatric help after I had spent the best past of 2 1/2 years severely depressed and unable to seek help.
I guess the main reasons why I refused to seek help when I was younger, was not only the misdiagnoses I received but the stigma and societal attitudes surrounding Mental Illness. I heard countless times people referring to those of us with Mental Illnesses as crazy, nut-jobs, psychos, loonies, mentally unstable and in some cases, that we are dangerous and it's best to stay away from us.
What people don't realise is that it's comments like that, that feed our own shame, we feel bad enough as it is, but to hear those comments, that make us feel ashamed and scared that we might a have a mental illness and that if we do, we are less of a person and won't be accepted in society, or labelled as 'crazy' this stigma feeds our shame and eventually we believe we are not worthy of seeking help and as a result some of us avoid seeking the much needed help that could save our lives. We become afraid that once we have a diagnosis that that is all anyone will ever see, our illness and not who are. A vicious cycle begins and this feeds our feelings of worthlessness, and ultimately we convince ourselves that we don't deserve help, that we are not worthy of it.
Sadly, my diagnosis almost came too late. Two months after my diagnosis I was hospitalised, I was in my 'darkest hours', I was sucidal and was self harming worse that I ever had before.
It was here that the hospital attempted to override my Psychiatrists dignosis of Bipolar and tried to diagnose me as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
However, my Psychiatrist explained that I had symptoms of BPD however they were due to my Bipolar and I didn't exhibit enough to fit the dignostic criteria.
After my Diagnosis/Discharged
Two weeks after being admitted to hospital, I was released, I was considered 'better', I still wasn't well, but I wasn't suicidal.
Three days after being released from hospital I started self harming again, then I began to self medicate as well. My Psychiatrist was concerned I had been released from the hospital too early, but the hospital refused to lift the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, I was placed in the 'too hard basket' by the hospital.
Sadly back then once BPD was even hinted at, a lot places and professional wouldn't even look at you, they either didn't have the experience or just simply didn't want to deal with the complications that can arise from treating someone with BPD and the emotional dysregulation that goes along with it.
About a month after being discharged my partner of 7 1/2 years ended our relationship, basically he couldn't deal with my problems anymore, he was sick of the and the associated mood swings.
I spent the next week desperately trying to seek re-admission into hospital, but each time I was told by the CAT (Crisis, Assessment and Treatment) Team that it wasn't going to happen, again they refused to believe it was Bipolar and said that I was low risk, because threats of suicide are quite common with BPD sufferers as a form of manipulation
Eventually, I gave up.. I was convinced that nobody cared, so I went home, isolated myself further and tried to end my life. I was over everything, I was over fighting to get better and failing. I just wanted everything to stop, I couldn't take anymore and I convinced myself that everybody would be better if I were dead.
Eventually a friend managed to get a hold of me and called the ambulance, the next thing I remember is the police showing up at my house and trying to keep me awake and ascertain if I was violent, the ambulance showed up not too long after and I remember fading in and out of consciousness during that trip thinking "So this it. This is how I die' Suddenly in the dark recesses of my mind all I remember is a tiny voice, a small seemingly insignificant train of thought and all it said was "no".
Fragmented memories from that night are all that remain, I was hooked up to a heart monitor, bloods were taken and I was basically left in the Emergency Department on a bed, being checked on at random, but for the most part left alone.
The other thing I remember is the whispering of the nurses, the uncalled for and hurtful remarks that were made when they thought I was either out of hearing range or too drugged out of my skull to notice:
- "In that bed is the overdose..."
- It wasn't a serious attempt, she didn't take enough to really do anything"
- "She has BPD but claims to have Bipolar, but they'll say anything to get what they want..."
- "She attention seeking/manipulating people..."
A few hours later, I was declared to no longer be a threat to myself and that I could go home, I was still classified as low risk, and the suicide attempt was classified as attention seeking behaviour.
It was at this point that I realised, that not only did I have a serious illness, but I also had a label, one that the hospital would never change despite being wrong, despite my own Psychiatrist telling them otherwise, I realised that I had an illness, that even the hospital didn't wan't know about. It felt that I was beyond help, that nobody thought that recovery was even possible for me, that this was all I could hope for out of life, never anything better.
This was my turning point, I felt alone, Psych Services didn't want to know about me and all hope had been eroded and it was at that point when I came to the realisation that if I didn't get some form of help for my illness, the next time things got desperate, it could very well kill me and I realised, I didn't want to die young and become just another statistic, I didn't want that, so I started opening up to my friends and kept seeing my Psychiatrist, the only professional who didn't think I was a hopeless case, the only one who made me feel like I could get through this.
Some of my friends were fantastic and were always there, they helped me through my worst moments and for that I am eternally thankful, I honestly don't think I'd be here today if it wasn't for them.
Sadly, most of the reactions I got from people were negative, I lost some friends because it was a topic they were uncomfortable with and believed it was something that shouldn't be talked about.
Other friends started treating me like I was 'fragile' and were scared to say anything that might upset me because they thought it would 'trigger off' another suicide attempt.
I've had people, when I've told them ask if I'm sure because I don't look mentally ill, my response is generally, "So what does mental illness look like?" Sometimes I feel like saying if you could see the scars, both physical and psychological, you wouldn't say that.
I've had family members tell me to be careful who I mention it to because otherwise people might think that I was crazy or that it ran in the family and they didn't want people to think that about them.
I've had people tell me that my illness is all in my head, of course it is, I have a chemical imbalance in my brain, where else would my brain be located? My arse? If I'm feeling particularly moody, I tell them to eff off.
On the days where I'm moody or grumpy, I've had people ask if I've taken my medication that day, like general moodiness is part of my Bipolar and not just a part of being human or a woman for that matter.
I've had people on the days where I've had no motivation whatsoever, to stop being lazy, get off my butt and I'll feel better, they don't understand, it sometime physically impossible for me to do and all I can do is lay there feeling miserable and watch the world around pass me by.
I have Job Networks insist that I apply for a Disability Support Pension, because my Bipolar has been classified as a disability, I've refused countless times I refuse to accept that my illness is a disability and refuse to believe that I am incapable of doing anything anyone else can do.
I've had people tell me that my medication should to stopped, because it's all in my head and I need to find healthier ways to cope with my illness. They wouldn't say that to a transplant patient or a diabetic, so what makes them think that is acceptable to say that to me? My medication helps me to function in a world I find chaotic, it sometimes slows my brain down so that I can actually think clearly and function well enough in society. Other days it helps to lift my mood so that I can see that things will pass and life is not as hopeless as it feels. What is so wrong with that?
Finding the Light at the End
My recovery was not easy, there was no quick fix, it was hard and there were days and weeks when it seemed impossible.
In 2010, a year after I started seeing my Psychiatrist, she decided that she could no longer continue to see me, I never really got an explanation, perhaps my uncontrollable moods got too much for to handle. My moods had once again spiralled out of control and this time I became manic and I didn't care.
I went out all the time partying, I lost my job, I started drinking everyday and it was not uncommon for me to be intoxicated within a few hours of being awake, I was reckless, I didn't care about my safety and I felt that I was invincible.
Unfortunately, what goes up must come down, a few months later I crashed, my liver and kidney function had decreased, thankfully I noticed it this time and decided that things in my life needed to change..
Late 2010, I packed up everything I owned into my car and a trailer and left Melbourne. I moved to a small country town to make a fresh start where no one knew and there was less temptation, I kept in contact with some of my friends, others I realised were toxic and in-conducive to my Mental Health and let them fade away out of my life.
I bought books on both Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder, read up as much as I could, I stuck with my medication and with the help of a GP, I have managed quite well. I researched strategies to help me to recognize and deal the high and the lows. I even learned to listen to my inner voice and when things start becoming too much for me, I take some time out for me and start to focus on what is going on inside my head.It worked. I succeeded, despite it all, despite all I had been through, I finally found it, RECOVERY. A place at one point many years ago, I thought was impossible to achieve. It wasn't easy, in fact it was the hardest thing I've ever achieved.
I did it mostly with the help of family and friends, at least the ones who stuck around and didn't treat me like I was a leper. I now have strategies in place to deal with the highs and the lows, and for the most part they work.
I still have my bad days, usually the only tend to last a day or two and I am able to pick myself up again and continue to function, other times I am not so lucky and before I know I find myself starting down the barrel of another manic episode and instead of it consuming me, like it would have in the past, I fight it and I overcome it.
I look back on those days and sometimes I honestly wonder how I made it through the shambles that were my life. I am such a different person to who I was back then, not only am I stronger and more resilient, I have also grown as as a person and accepted that it will always be a part of me. I shed my own stigma of my illness and realised that it doesn't define who I am or what I am capable of achieving.
Nowadays, I have ambition, passion and a drive to succeed. I have finally found something that I want to do with my life, purpose and meaning.
I have already gained a qualification in Mental Health and am in the process of gaining another one, my goal: to become a support worker in the Mental Health field, to show people that recovery is indeed possible and no matter how severe and debilitating their mental illness is, it is possible to survive and come through the other end in tact
© 2017 Jess