By Mike Thornsbury
It’s hard for those without mental illness to understand mental illness. You wake up every day afraid and uncertain, wondering what the morning will bring. What your brain chemistry will bring. You wake up every day isolated and alone because the stigma stops you from talking about your illness. You struggle, endure, and survive in the dark. And while a cancer patient may wake with similar feelings — fear, angst, anger, sadness, loneliness, and nervousness — most cancer patients fight in the open.
They have medical professionals, family, friends and an entire support system around them.
So why do people with brain issues live in the shadows and hide in the dark? Stigma. Plain and simple.
Of course, I can’t talk for all people, or all mental illnesses, but I can give you a view into my daily grind of being bipolar: bipolar 2 with severe anxiety.
I wake up — has it been three hours or 11? — and immediately begin thinking about work, or what it was I did yesterday. Did I do everything? Finish everything? Do I need to apologize to anyone for anything I did that day? Do I need to apologize for taking too many breaks during yesterday? Are there bills past due? Utilities to pay? Is my cat alive and did I feed him yesterday? And, last on my list, do I feel OK?
Today, do I feel OK?
(Let that sink in. I’ve been up for a good minute. My mind racing. My eyes opened, and the last thing on my list is me.)
Of course, other questions follow: will I have a good day? Will I have a bad one? Does it really matter? Does it make a difference? But it does.
The difference between “good,” “bad” and “normal” is subtle but it still does because, on a good day, I have no symptoms — or I am riding the waves of an incredible manic high. (I mean, how do you tell the difference when your mind is sending good signals either way?) On a bad day I am full of emotion: of manic highs and manic lows. Of anger, crying, easy agitation, and suicidal thoughts. And yes, contrary to what you may assume, during manic highs I have suicidal thoughts. Why? Life is too great.
Things are too good.
That said, I know this may sound odd, especially to those who do not live with mental illness. Who struggle to understand mental illness. And so for those that don’t understand Bipolar — and other mental illness — let me give explain.
Or try to explain.
Bipolar comes with extreme highs and sometimes extreme depressive lows. Combine this with depression (also requiring medication), generalized anxiety disorder, and severe panic disorder and any given day can be a roller coaster ride. Like it was a few weeks ago.
Like it was that one Sunday morning.
I got up, showered (an extreme panic attack causing moment that usually requires a sit down after with breathing exercises), and then headed to brunch with friends. We watched a baseball game, stopped on the way home and grabbed one of my favorite meals for dinner, and then I went home. Good day, right? Well, not really. Not in my mind because the past week or so, I had been on a manic low.
I put on a good face and seemed cheerful but my brain was all over the place. I was planning my own suicide. And so after dinner I changed clothes and sat down to write my suicide note. Twenty minutes later, I was sitting in my bathtub with my thoughts and a razor blade.
No one on the outside would have seen this coming. Things seemed fine. I seemed fine. But there I was.
There “it” was.
I took some of my anxiety medication to relax and then grabbed the blade. But then — just then — it clicked. Something in my brain fired an emergency response, and two hours later I was admitted to the hospital with a full-time suicide watch detail for 48 hours. Because that is “the disease.”
That is my disease, and it is a disease most of us can’t talk about it.
It is a disease most of us are afraid to talk about.
But we need to talk. The stigma needs to stop, and we all need to realize that being mentally ill is not a “problem,” it is a disease — like any other disease — which needs to be addressed and treated. Which needs to be supported.
So fight the stigma and be open. There are others with you!
If you are in crisis, please seek help immediately. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center, text MHA to 741741, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike is a five-time suicide survivor and mental health advocate. He has done extensive fundraising for many national and local mental health organizations, and he is currently a member of the Mental Health America National Board of Directors.