But I still had to tell people about my diagnosis. My girlfriend of seven years had already broken up with me (in part due to my erratic behavior) so I knew I had to approach my family and friends if I wanted to support and help.
My biggest challenge, in my head, was that I couldn’t even draw a picture of this “thing” called bipolar disorder. I looked good. In fact, I looked really good. Would anybody believe I was mentally ill?
I waited a week until I got up the nerve to ask my parents to dinner. I took them for a meal at one of their favorite restaurants. They seemed suspicious. Did I have something to tell them? They automatically assumed I was in some sort of trouble. I quickly spilled the beans. “Mom, Dad, I’ve been diagnosed as bipolar by a psychiatrist,” I said. There was a long silence. It’s as if I’d told them that I had two months to live Interestingly, they had the same reaction that I had when my doctor told me.
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. My 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.”
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.