Next, a million questions: “Are you sure?” “Where did it come from?” “What’s going to happen to you?” Although they didn’t come out and say it, they seemed concerned that I was going to lose my mind. Oh, God. Their son had a mental illness. Was I going to end up living with them for the rest of their lives? And of course, they wanted to know if it was genetic. Telling them that it was didn’t exactly make for a pleasant conclusion to the dinner. Not only were they now faced with the stigma that their son had a mental illness, but the stigma that mental illness ran in the family.
With friends, it was easier to break the news. They seemed to know more about bipolar disorder and were supportive of my getting well and staying on a medication regimen. But all hell broke loose when medication didn’t manage my illness and I opted for the last resort, electroshock therapy (ECT).
My friends now had not just a mentally ill friend but a severely mentally ill friend who had to be hospitalized and shocked to maintain an even keel. This was too much for some to handle, and those people simply disappeared. Nobody seemed to want a friend who was now officially a psychiatric patient and, after electroshock, an almost certain zombie.
In fact, everybody seemed frightened of me, including my neighbors, my landlord, and shopkeepers who I had known for years.
They all looked at me funny and tried to avoid making eye contact with me. I, however, was extremely up-front. I told them all about my illness and was able to explain my symptoms as well as my treatment to them. “Have faith, one day I’m going to be just fine,” I seemed to cry out inside. “I’m still the same Andy. I’ve just slipped a bit.”
Related: The Shamanic View of Mental Illness
As there weren’t many who knew much about my mental illness, a lot of people had the attitude that I had the capability to “kick it” and get better instantly. This was the most frustrating attitude for me. My bipolar disorder was ravaging my life. But because nobody could see it, many people thought it was a figment of my imagination.
Soon I started thinking this too. But when the symptoms, including the racing thoughts, hallucinations, and sleepless nights were out of control, the fact that I had been diagnosed as being really ill was reassuring.
When I met the woman I was going to marry, I was upfront about my bipolar disorder. That was easy for several reasons. First, I had just written a memoir about my battle with bipolar disorder (one of the first written by a man), with which she was familiar, and second, her own mother’s life had been ravaged by mental illness. Her mother had taken her life the month before we met.
My bipolar disorder was not a factor in her deciding to marry me and to have two children with me nor was it a factor in our divorce, until it became a convenient excuse for our marital problems and her concerns later about my being a father, both of which were proven to be unfounded. Oddly, stigma kicked me in the ass again.
When I was ready to get well and had enlisted as much help as possible from family and friends, I started viewing my illness like it was cancer eating away at me and I fought back. I dealt with it like it was any physical illness. I followed a medication regimen, as well as my doctor’s orders, worked tirelessly with my therapist, and just tried not to pay attention to others’ ignorant opinions about my illness. But mostly, I fought it alone, one day at a time, and I eventually won the battle.
Today, my bipolar disorder has been stabilized for almost fifteen years, but I remain vigilant about it, I know what can set off my mania and I also live knowing that it lurks behind every corner. It’s this vigilance that keeps my bipolar disorder in check and it’s me sharing my illness with friends, families and so many other people which keeps it “locked up.”
The people who love you will not only understand your mental illness but if you’re lucky, will join you in everything you need to do to cope and manage with it on a daily basis.
Written by Andy Behrman Originally appeared on The Goodmen Project