When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? A teacher, a doctor, a lawyer? Did it change as you got older? Once I thought I wanted to be a social worker because I thought that was the best way to help people, but I would become so emotional after volunteering at a geriatric centre it became clear that I wasn’t meant to have that type of job. I thought I was meant to help people. I admired Princess Diana and Mother Teresa when my fellow elementary school students had superficial things on their minds. I knew I was different as I had trouble relating to others.
I thought maybe I could be a teacher. That didn’t happen for me either, but it was a blessing in disguise because it wouldn’t have been a challenging enough job for me, and I would have been bored. I needed a challenge, as my mind needs to be busy and I need flexibility.
So, where did I end up? Did I end up being able to help people? What was in the books? Well, before finding a career, I experienced diagnoses of Bipolar disorder type 2, with rapid-cycling, multiple anxiety disorders and developed some obsessive compulsive tendencies. During this time, I did complete a 4-year university degree (a double major in English and History) and I also completed an accelerated law clerk program after that. I am proud to say that have worked in the same field for over 7 years and had managed to keep steady, full time employment. While I didn’t end up as a lawyer, doctor or teacher, I did end up in the legal profession as a law clerk, helping people in some capacity and I started my own small business as social media content writer. Most importantly, I found a way to volunteer that worked for me and that helps a cause I believe in. I am a volunteer blogger for Healthy Minds Canada and I volunteer for The International Bipolar Foundation. There are many ways to give back and to help, and even if it is supporting a friend, it still matters. Every ounce of help counts, and I believe in karma.
I wouldn’t be where I am without having received proper treatment and having a good support system. I am fortunate to have had the care I have had. I have my share of challenges, but I am so strong because of them. I first began seeing my psychiatrist in December 2003 (my first semester of university). I wasn’t formally diagnosed as having bipolar disorder until July 2010, but there were indications over the years that it was a possible diagnosis. Between 2003-2010 I had periods of time when I was able to function without antidepressants and only, occasionally required benzodiazepines. Thanks to antidepressants and the many medications I have taken over the years and continue to take, I have struggled with weight and self-esteem issues but I am for the most part stable. Stability means that I can function relatively well i.e. get out of bed, shower, go to work, socialize here and there even when I don’t want to at times. I am grateful that I am proactive when it comes to my health and I know my patterns.
There are days when I feel like no one understands me and as if I am all alone. Days where I just want to find a cave and hibernate for months. Yes, I have friends, I have family and a husband who cares about me. I know people are “here” for me, but when you are in “a state”, whether it’s an anxious, depressed or hypomanic state and your mind is playing tricks on you, you think that “no one gets you” and you feel alone. One of the worst feelings is alone when you are in a room full of people.
I think it is actually important to learn to be okay with spending time with your mind, and having alone time. It is part of getting to know yourself. After receiving my diagnosis, I felt lost and it took me a very long time to separate personality from diagnosis and to see who I am. I am the same person I always was, but different because I have a name for what was going on with me. There are some pre-bipolar and post-bipolar changes, but I know any post-diagnosis changes were positive changes. Having this mental illness allowed me to learn more about myself and to be a better, more compassionate and patient person.
Unfortunately, I will admit that the past 5 years I have felt more fatigued, more frustration, more anger towards myself and had to practice some serious acting skills. We live in a society where mental health stigma prevents people from seeking treatment and disclosing their illnesses to others. I get annoyed when I hear someone say “The weather is getting really depressing, isn’t it?” (which I did hear yesterday). It takes a lot of self-control not to correct someone and say “You can’t use mental illnesses as adjectives. It’s offensive”.
My current employer is aware of my diagnosis and is extremely understanding which makes getting up for work a little bit easier. No one else at work knows that I have bipolar disorder, and therefore every day at work, regardless of how I really am feeling, the answer to “Hey Mel, how are you today?” is at the very least “I’m okay, thanks”. It’s exhausting to pretend 5 days a week, 8 hours a day but what is the alternative? To say “Don’t talk to me right know, I am having a bad bipolar day?” or “I’m super high today!!!” or “I am so sad today, if you talk to me I may start crying for no reason”. Sometimes it is just easier to pretend, even though I hate being phoney.
I didn’t think that I would need to become an actress but I have to say, I have become such a good actress that I fool myself sometimes. I am excellent at hiding my symptoms from my family, friends and husband as a result of all the acting I have to do in public and at work. I believe myself that I am “okay” when I really am not.
I am comfortable with telling people about my diagnosis, however, I am cautious about who I tell because there is no point in telling someone who does not know what to do with that information or who has no understanding of mental illness and no compassion.
I don’t expect that someone will understand me in full. I have my own “code” and there is no precise way to decipher me and I have to give up that idea. What matters is that the people who care and love/support me know how to comfort me and help me in my different states. What works when I am low might irritate me when I am on a high. It’s not just about hearing the words “I know what you mean”, it’s about knowing that someone sincerely cares and accepts you for you. I know that no two people are exactly alike and I may have very different thoughts from someone else, especially someone who has never experienced mental illness. To put a positive spin on it, I do not see myself as a conformist and I am an individual so thinking differently isn’t necessarily a negative thing.
So what have I learned over the past 5 years? I have to be comfortable with myself, I have to accept who I am, flaws and all. No one is perfect. My self-esteem may be lacking but no one can help me rebuild it except me and I must be kind to myself. I must be my own advocate, stand up for what I believe in, be my own friend, my own cheerleader, and number one fan and remember the only opinion that matters/only approval I should be seeking is my own. I must love myself.
Anna Freud once said, “I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence but it comes from within. It is there all the time”.
It IS there all the time.
I have lived with anxiety and depression for more than a decade, before I was diagnosed with Bipolar II in July 2010. I also experience rapid cycling. I hope to help others by telling my story, and to one day write a book about my experience living with bipolar disorder and experiencing and overcoming stigma.
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