Everybody’s different. Every body‘s different. Every mind is unique and special. We humans are all the same in the most important ways, and different in the most interesting ways. Some we celebrate. Some we oppose. Some we just don’t talk about. We say, at most, that there’s a stigma around such-and-such difference. How sad that there’s a stigma around it. And then the conversation ends, because what “stigma” really means is just “I recognize that this taboo hurts people, but I’m not willing to stand up for them.” Be honest about it. What have you done to dismantle racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, other than maybe talk about it when someone who isn’t like you makes the cover of Time magazine?
Mental illness has a stigma around it. Odds are, you know someone who’s hurting. Maybe you’ve lost someone to suicide. You’re sad about it. You notice it. And then you go back to your neurotypical life. We call you “normies”. It’s not an insult; it’s a term of envy. We wish for the freedom to trust ourselves, a freedom most take for granted.
I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, almost as big as my bipolar disorder. Yeah, I said bipolar, not depression, not schizophrenia, not obsessive-compulsive disorder or general anxiety. BIPOLAR. The one people are scared to talk about, because the stereotypes are so much worse, and unfortunately, they’re often true.
Let’s step back and talk about boundaries for a minute. We all have them, we all need them, and most people aren’t good at setting them. We live in a world that tries to break them down, teaches us that we shouldn’t have them. It’s a world that pushes us to spend money we don’t have on food that’s bad for us while driving recklessly and binge-watching overdramatic TV shows when we should be sleeping.
For some bipolar people, mania feels like being indestructible. We follow all those urges and more. Why shouldn’t we? We’re indestructible! Unstoppable! Nobody’s gonna rain on our parade. Nobody’s gonna bring us down. Until… well, you know what happens next. The other stereotype: the depression. We can’t go to work, get out of bed, take care of ourselves. Everything is bleak and black and hopeless and nobody can convince us otherwise.
That’s the stereotype. Type one bipolar. Then… there’s type two bipolar, where “mania” is replaced with something called “hypomania”, which sounds like “mania, but less”, and that couldn’t be more wrong.
Type two bipolar doesn’t swing from good to bad; it swings from one bad to another, and sometimes, maybe for a few weeks every couple of years, we get a taste of normal. Hypomania can look like depression, it can look like a phobia, it can mean being irritable.
It can mean being violent. That’s the part we don’t talk about. We don’t even make eye contact.
Show me a woman who’s been beaten by her husband, and I’ll show you a man who doesn’t know he’s bipolar. (Or, he thought “this time I’ve got it under control, really, I can handle it, I promise.”) Show me a cycle of abuse, and I’ll show you a cycle of depression and (hypo)mania.
If this sounds bad, keep in mind that in a few months (or minutes) I’ll feel completely different. Birds will sing, hope will spring, love will fill my heart and I’ll cry for joy instead of… whatever this feeling is. Keep living, keep reading, it will get better, I promise, eventually, I think. In this state, it’s hard to keep my thoughts in order. No, that’s not right. It’s hard to see when they’ve gotten out of order.
We were talking about boundaries. Everyone needs boundaries–everyone. Part of being mentally ill is that we need more and different boundaries than normies.
Bipolar is stigmatized because it requires effort from others. We need help, and not in the abstract sense. Meds, doctors, therapy, yes, yes, that’s all well and good, but my disease doesn’t live at the doctor’s office. I can’t put it away. It doesn’t call when it’s coming to visit. Yeah, I’m good at hiding it, faking it, digging deeper, but there’s a limit, and you’ve gotta understand that. I do not need another copy of the goddamn suicide prevention hotline. You do know that there’s a wait when you call, right? No, I suppose you wouldn’t.
If you’re still with me, the hard part is over. Maybe you get it. Maybe you’ll help. It’s just three things, really, which are really just one thing. First, we need to be heard and understood. Second, we need different boundaries. Third, we need more research. We need people to give a damn.
Someone with bipolar disorder might need things, suddenly and urgently. By the time they say “I’m hungry,” they may have already noticed their blood sugar dropping, and their sanity with it. That’s a boundary. It’s especially important for people who are also diabetic; would you ask someone to delay taking their insulin?
By the time one says “I’m feeling anxious and I need to leave,” seconds count. Everything is already scary, and “can’t get out” is one more nightmare. Your amusing anecdote is not going to calm them down. Don’t argue. Let them go for a walk, find their safe space, go to the bathroom, whatever they need.
We have to take our medications. We have to take them on time. If you’ve ever touched your tongue to a nine-volt battery, you have a sense of what it’s like to be late with meds, except the shocks are random and show up anywhere and everywhere for hours, days… months…
No, we are not going to stay up on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball drop. We have to maintain our sleep schedule. Sometimes mania means staying up for days and feeling great until the crash comes. Sometimes we have to sacrifice some of the mania to avoid some of the depression. It’s rude to ask someone who’s Jewish to work on the Sabbath; it’s dangerous to ask someone with bipolar to skip sleep, even if it is for a party, no matter how fun you think the party will be. No party is fun if you’re trying to hold a smile while scraping the wallpaper off the inside of your skull with your fingernails.
Alcohol damages the human brain. It’s a hundred times worse if that brain has a disorder. Another hundred times if there are medications involved. Humanity quite literally does not understand what ethanol does, except that it’s nothing good. Don’t tell me “aw, c’mon, just one.” Frankly, you shouldn’t be drinking either. Find another coping mechanism. Get your kicks someplace else.
That’s just respect and understanding. Consider it a minimum passing grade. I hope you don’t aim for straight D’s on your report card. I hope you don’t put up with F’s for the rest of the class, especially with stakes this high.
If you want an A, you’ve got to work harder. Improve the situation. Notice when someone’s not being heard, and speak up for them. Be on their side. Upend the status quo. If there’s violence, ask loudly, “Who needed treatment and didn’t get it?” If the worst happens–if someone ends their life–ask “How did we fail them?” and don’t stop asking until you’ve found a dozen answers.
Learn. Change. Care.