I ran into a bipolar friend as I went to fill my new prescriptions on the day I was diagnosed. “How are you?” he said.
I laughed at the synchronicity of it. “I’m bipolar!”
Cue the secret handshake and unwilling admission into the hellfire club of mental illness.
We talked for a couple of minutes. After expressing worry about the drugs I was going to have to take, he said “The worst thing for me is this persistent tremor in my dominant hand. I don’t know if it’s the bipolar or the lithium.”
As if on cue, a teenage boy in a neon green shirt ducked out of a grocery aisle, held out a slightly unsteady hand, and said “It’s the lithium.”
It was the best possible welcome into a world I never wanted to be part of. A world that contained friends and strangers and now myself. It was the first inkling that I wasn’t as alone as I felt.
The diagnosis, after a year or two of steadily declining stability, hit me strangely.
The doctor’s agreement was only confirmation of what I’d already figured out for myself. I did feel disoriented, a bit numb, but there was no surprise there, no moment of horrified shock.
The hard part came a few weeks later when the visceral understanding that it was never, ever going away finally settled in.
Medicine isn’t great with mental illness, but it does give us some pretty wonderful tools. Medication, for one. These are very effective for some people; I’m terribly fond of mine. Medicine can help us live with it.
What medicine cannot do is teach us how to incorporate it into our lives and sense of self. It can’t help us with the really hard shit.
Therapy can help with that, but therapy was a long time coming. There was a three-month wait. And it takes time to work. It requires a good therapist. It’s worth trying, but it can be kind of a crapshoot.
What got me through, and what has helped more than therapy, was connecting with people who had been through this before. Some were bloggers who didn’t know me, some were my readers, some were longtime friends I hadn’t even known were bipolar. Suddenly there was this web of people, all connected, right there. People like me.
I saw that it was possible to get through it. That it was possible to have a good life, to be an awesome person. I saw it over and over.
Therapy couldn’t have given me those powerful human examples. Those blog posts and emails and comments and conversations reached me in a way that therapy never could. They were people like me. Their voices carried a weight of reassurance that talking to my therapist could not. She was one voice. Suddenly I had a couple dozen all saying the same thing: “I got through it. It can be done. You still have a life worth living.”
Drugs took the edge off the worst of it and kept me stable long enough to try to find my feet with the help of therapy. These human connections got me through until I could get to therapy.
The hardest thing has been adjusting to how it has changed my life, both in the broad borders and in the little details. Coping with the knowledge that my brain will probably try to kill me again. Learning not to let the difficulty of dealing with this thing erode my personhood. Understanding that this is now part of who I am. Grieving what I have lost, over and over.
That was the hammer-blow that has never stopped falling: this is me, this is forever.
This is an isolating condition; mental illness separates sufferers from the world in fundamental ways. But I’m not alone. I fight individual battles alone, but I’m not alone in my experiences. There are others. Sometimes that helps when nothing else does.
That’s the thing I feel like I need to pay back. That’s why I strive to be honest, even when it’s painful or what I’m saying is ugly or so stupidly melodramatic it makes me want to gag reading it later. I want people to see that it gets very bad, that it sometimes makes no sense, and I need people to see that it gets better again, and sense can be made. I need people to see that it’s a thing that changes and defines you, but it doesn’t unmake you or take away all of the good things about you.
I’m trying to give back what I took. I reached out and it was there for me, a net I never knew I needed and never helped to weave, but that caught me nevertheless. It was made by other people, sharing what they knew, talking about their experiences. So I pass that on. And doing that helps me.
Being bipolar, the shit that it does to me, there’s nothing in the world that could make it worth it, I think. But helping other people by using those experiences? That makes it much more bearable.