#BellLetsTalk Day is such an important cause and last year I decided to share how my IBD journey very quickly turned into a new monster called anxiety. This year, I think it’s important to share the story of a dear friend of mine. She offers a far more insightful and inspiring story as she struggles with Bipolar Disorder. I see Brittany daily and I will openly admit that I am ignorant when it comes to her mental health. On days where I find it difficult to comprehend her perspective, I have slowly begun to recognize my frustration is not with her, but with myself. I’ve said this directly to her, but there are days where I just don’t understand. And she’s reassured me that it’s okay. It’s okay because as I challenge myself to empathize with her, she challenges herself to open up.
I see how Brittany’s mental health affects her every single day, and I can attest to the fact that she battles, and she battles hard. When I first met Brittany I thought to myself, “Why is this girl so happy? She’s literally the happiest person I’ve ever met. I love being around her.” And this was far before she was diagnosed. This was (is) her normal. When I see Brittany’s “normal” days it’s like a shimmer of light and her attitude is contagious. On her low days I ache for her to come back to us….But don’t let me get a head of myself. Because this isn’t my story. It isn’t my baggage. It’s hers…….
Everyone has their own baggage. Whether it is physical illness, broken hearts or broken bones, each individual has some sort of traumatic event that makes up a piece of their story. My baggage, however, is not something that can be seen with the naked eye. Many people look at me and do not even know that I have such heavy baggage; baggage that weighs me down every day and makes it difficult for me to work, carry on healthy relationships and hold myself up proudly. None the less, I manage. I push through the darkness and try to see the light each day. I share this story with you because I hope not only to help myself heal, but also to connect with others who perhaps feel the same heaviness. Together we can find strength in solidarity by knowing that there are others who understand what we are going through. You are not alone, and neither am I.
Bipolar disorder. When the diagnosis came down it hit me hard. Like a tonne of bricks hammering me in the gut, I felt breathless. As I asked the psychiatrist if perhaps there could be some mistake, I was assured that I held many of the key markers for the disorder and that I would have to take a concoction of anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs to control the symptoms. Latuda, Quetiapine, Lamotrigine, Clonezapam, Lorazepam and Prozac are just a few of the drugs that I have had to take over the years since my diagnosis. These drugs make me feel strange. Drowsy, restless, nauseous and uneasy, I try to navigate my life as my body adjusts to the chemicals that are constantly beings adjusted and later readjusted. There are times when I have to take time off work to cope with these chemical changes that leave me in a zombie-like trance. I wonder while I lay in bed at home if my colleagues will wonder why I am away. Will they understand if I try to explain? Will they even care? Will they believe me? Questions like these lead me to wear a series of masks in my daily life to hide the anxiety and shame I feel about living with a disorder that is misunderstood and highly stigmatized.
I wear masks in many life scenarios; at work, in personal relationships and even when doing something simple like grocery shopping. I wear masks to hide my fear, anxiety, racing thoughts, and overt negativity. I don’t like to feel these emotions, however, they seem to rain down upon me like a hurricane as I push through each day. I try to smile as I quietly freak out inside so as to not offend. I laugh when I feel like screaming and pulling out my hair so as to not rock the proverbial boat with my colleagues. I am silent when I want to go off on a negative tangent so as to not push my family or partner away. Wearing these masks is exhausting but necessary if I care to maintain any personal or professional relationships. So although I want to scream, I smile. I smile in the face of bipolar, of trauma, of depression, of mania. Because I am not my diagnosis. I am so much more than this.
Wearing these masks is, as mentioned, necessary. There are times, however, that these masks must be removed. Here is a scenario where I should have removed my mask. This past summer I worked really hard on my wellness. After a stay in the psych ward and a lengthy leave from work, I decided to focus on myself. I exercised, ate healthy, worked on building up my relationships with my mother, father and siblings and took my medication every day as prescribed. I felt great. So great that I felt it was time to re-enter the dating game. Eventually I met a man and we quickly fell in love. In each other’s eyes we saw the picture perfect image of the ideal partner. The last thing I wanted to do was tarnish his view of me by dropping an atom bomb of an announcement and telling him that I was bipolar. So I didn’t. I carried on for months, pretending that I was “normal.” After some time, he moved in with me. We were so happy with our life together and I still felt great. So great that I decided to stop taking my medication. “I can do this without chemicals. I just have to continue to nourish my body with healthy food, exercise on the regular and maintain healthy relationships,” I told myself as reassurance. I could continue to wear my mask with my partner and he could continue thinking that I was perfect. I think you all know how this story ends. After about two months of being off my meds, the cracks began to show. I cried all the time. I was extremely agitated and irritable, and each night, after holding myself together all day at my job, I would fall apart at home. One December day, he came to me and told me, “I can’t keep doing this. I am not happy anymore. You are not the same person that you were when we met.” With my mask fixed tightly to my face, I calmly said, “Ok,” and listened to his words while simultaneously screaming on the inside. It was at this moment that I decided to drop the bomb. I went into the bathroom and returned with a grocery bag of prescription drugs. Dumping them out on the counter, I cried and explained that I was sick. I heard the words bipolar exit my mouth like cotton, thick and dry. And once it was said, it couldn’t be undone. There it was, lying on the kitchen counter in the form of dozens of half full pill bottles. I hoped that he would take me up in his arms and tell me that he was sorry. I hoped that he would help to hold me up when I had so clearly fallen down. But it was too late. I had been inauthentic to who I was. I had worn a mask when I should have been myself. In the days that followed, my partner who I loved so much collected his things and moved out, leaving our relationship, and me, behind. As I remained in the empty apartment we once filled with love and happiness, I wondered if I had just been honest with him from the start, would things have been different. If I had removed my mask, would he have still seen me?
Stacey once told me that my bipolar was one of the things that made me interesting. “Own it! It’s a piece of who you are, and you’re awesome!” she told me. This conversation with her sticks out in my mind as a little beacon of light in my life that had been filled with so much dark. In a world where mental illness holds so much stigma, there is a reasonable need to wear masks. But what if we didn’t? What if we owned it? What if we fought back against the stigma and were proud of who we are? What if I told the people I encounter in my life about my mental illness, much like I’d tell them about my love of cheese pizza? “Hi, my name is Brittany. I have a mental illness, but there are lots of other amazing things that make me who I am.” Yes, I am bipolar. But I am also a singer, a teacher, a daughter, a sister, a partner, a friend. All of these things make me who I am. And I am pretty awesome. So although it is tough and I struggle each day, I am going to try to own it. I am going to try to stop feeling ashamed and embarrassed of who I am and start being proud of all of the wonderful things I have to offer this world. And to those who have a problem with my mental illness… turn the mirror back on yourself and take a nice long look, because everyone has their own baggage.”