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Stigma Fighters : Mike Fierro

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the stigma of mental illness. There’s only one way to erase a stigma, and that’s by shining a light on individual stories. This is mine … I have Bipolar Disorder. I first showed signs of the disease in my teens, but wasn’t diagnosed until last year. Don’t worry about me, I’m fine. I’m the same person my friends and family have always known. In fact, I’m better now that I’m able to treat those few parts of me that never felt right. The more people talked about the stigma, the more it bothered me. So if it helps to put a face on mental illness, use mine. I’m OK with that. And I’m OK.

So I say I have bipolar disorder, and that’s no bigger of a deal to me than saying I get migraines. They can both be debilitating and can both be treated with medication, both preventive and abortive medication. Oh, and neither one can be seen … only felt by the afflicted. So what’s the difference? To the sufferer, there is none. But to our society, there’s a huge difference. And that is bullshit.

I am (un)fortunate enough to have both migraines and bipolar, so am a great test case. But from a symptomatic standpoint, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the difference. I have laid in bed, holding my head, and cried from the pain of a migraine. I have done the same from the pain of my thoughts. I have smiled and laughed and slapped people on the back when I feel better after a migraine. I have done the same when my mood shifts to mania. Back up a sec, you may not know what mania is. If there’s going to be a story about my bipolar, it probably warrants a brief definition:

Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings lasting at least a few weeks each (or as my last one did, 14 months). The swings are episodic in nature, meaning they’re not always there. The two sides to the bipolar coin are mania (in its simplest form “up”) and depression (“down”). As in any part of life, things are rarely this simple. The depression part is fairly straight-forward. It’s more than “being a little down” – it’s a soul-sucking certainty that nothing matters, it’s impossible to do anything, and even the smallest tasks, like getting out of bed, seem damn near impossible. It’s taking the side roads home, because you’re afraid the temptation to crash your car on the highway will be too late. Yeah, it’s that. The manic side is harder to define. For some, it’s periods of great creativity and production, for others it’s agitation and anger, and for others it’s a feeling of impulsivity and pressure. And racing thoughts, we can’t forget those.

I have been diagnosed as Bipolar I with Mixed Episodes. Ah, the mixed episode – the bane of every bipolar’s existence. As you might have guessed, a mixed episode is where characteristics of both mood extremes show up together. It’s perhaps the most dangerous type of episode there is (not to others, but to yourself). Imagine depression, anger, and impulsivity having a picnic in your head – you do not want to go near that lunch bunch!

Anyway, the year since my diagnosis has been an interesting one, to say the least. When they tell you that you have a mental illness, there’s a bit of denial that goes on – I won’t lie about that. But then there’s a bit of comfort as you realize that all the times in your life where you knew you were different, but didn’t know how, have now been explained. That’s easily the best part of being “categorized” as something – knowing that your life (in your head at least) where you were the starring character as the weird kid in a teen movie … was just in your head. It also explains why I was always the funny guy – I’ve been a lot of things in my life, but the funny guy is a constant. I didn’t always know this at the time, but sometimes that was because I was manic, and it came naturally, and sometimes I was hiding depression, and I forced it. Then there’s a sense of loss. I was undiagnosed for 30 years – what might I have done differently if I’d been aware and treated? What pain might I have avoided? What pain might I have saved others?

And finally during that first year, there’s the meds. It takes 6-12 months to find the right combination of medication to handle all of the aspects of this disease for each patient. Mine took about 10 months. And these aren’t little medications – these are powerful beasts with a list of side effects longer than Santa’s naughty & nice list. One of them gave me diabetes (yeah, no shit!). One of them gave me all the symptoms of Parkinson’s, but without actually having the disease (didn’t know that was possible). But in the end, we got to the right combination, and all is well.

So what do I want you to know out of this tale? More than anything that I’m the same person I’ve always been. There’s no difference in me since I’ve been diagnosed, it’s just that there’s a new word that applies to me now. The other thing I’d hope you take away from this is that not all mentally ill people are insane. Most, in fact, are normal people leading normal lives. Like me. You already know many more of us than you think.

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photoMike Fierro is just a guy who has lots of small thoughts about big ideas. He rarely have a full grasp on what he’s writing about, but that doesn’t stop him from drawing conclusions (confusions?) and being either excited, concerned, or just plain interested.

Mike has suffered from Bipolar Disorder since his teenage years, but went undiagnosed for 30 years. He lives happily with his wife and two children in Ellicott City, Maryland.

Mike can be found on his blog, and Facebook

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