My dear Twitter friend and original #bipolarbuddy Erez Shek wrote what I think is an amazing blog post examining to what extent we in the mental health corner of the internet get stuck in an unhealthy pattern of circular thinking that actually prohibits mental wellness and perpetuates stigma.
This feels like an incredibly important conversation.
Living with PTSD, Bipolar, Generalized Anxiety, and Chronic Depression, differentiating what I’m feeling is often very challenging. Sometimes, I feel like I need to reach out for help when I honestly don’t. I’m just looking for someone to validate my personal wallowing. Other times, I feel like I’m being pathetic and having a pity party and I don’t reach out when I’m actually in a situation that requires some support. I’m constantly scouring my feelings and actions with my mental decoder ring trying to understand myself better.
Self analysis has never been difficult for me. If anything, it has come too easily. I find myself creating a feedback loop. Over-analysis of my thoughts, past actions and events, and things I “should have” done differently stokes the flames of depression; often unnecessary pre-analysis of upcoming situations fans my ever-present anxiety. I am analytical by nature. Any of my close friends can tell you that conversations about religion, love, humanity in general, trauma, and attempts to understand the wonderful, twisted, broken, messed up, beautiful thing that is life are pretty much my go-to’s (especially late at night). I suck at small talk. I’m awkward as hell in social situations. I’ve never been the “popular” person. But if you put me in a room with one or two other people and ask us to talk about Life, The Universe, and Everything, I’ll have a hell of a lot more to say than “42.” I think of this passion for understanding as a gift. I love learning all the angles to something. I love hearing other people’s thoughts. I just love a good, intelligent, thought provoking conversation. But sometimes, my analytical drive is detrimental.
When it’s just me, sitting alone late at night, I can’t easily shut that part of me down. My inquiries turn inward. My examination becomes an existential crisis. My thoughts become tumultuous. And it is far too easy for me to say “Oh, this is [insert diagnosis here] again.” Sometimes it is, and in those moments of complete hopelessness, confusion, and pain, reaching out is not only important, it can be life saving. In those moments, I need to share my struggles with others to know that I am not alone. But sometimes, it really is me, on some level, choosing to stew in the thick of my own self-loathing for no reason other than it’s comfortable. It’s familiar. That’s one of the weird things about prolonged mental health struggles. Distorted thinking is my norm. And even when I have the tools to break out of it on my own, sometimes I choose not to use them. That’s pretty hard to type. But I am, and have always been, committed to transparency. And part of the work we’re all doing on our roads to recovery is this messy and difficult job of practicing radical honesty with ourselves.
I’ve spent most of the last seven months of my life at some level of unstable. Depressed, manic, hypomanic, flashbacks and panic attacks, a general sense of hopelessness. But those struggles have lessened. They have become fewer and further between. Where I was having panic attacks and flashbacks and nightmares every day, multiple times a day, even, I now have them once or twice a week. And for the most part, I know enough of the warning signs to keep myself grounded or, if needed, to remove myself from other humans and ride them out alone and away from the embarrassment of “making a scene.” I don’t need someone there holding my hand (though, sometimes, that’s a nice comfort.) I also know exactly what to do if I’m starting to hit the “manic” end of the spectrum. And for the most part, I’m on top of doing it now.
And out of all of my difficulties and diagnoses, depression is the most familiar. It’s a beast, but it’s kind of my beast. I’ve been told by every therapist I’ve ever had that I tend so much toward depression that my baseline is essentially mildly depressed. I have flareups of “moderate” or “severe” depression, but the day to day Sheila is, more often than not in any given twelve month period, at least a *little* depressed. That’s just my brain. I’m stuck with it. It’s the only one I’ve got and I don’t think another one would fit quite right.
But because depression is so comfortable for me, it’s honestly the area in which I struggle most with using coping skills. It’s the thing I have the hardest time fighting off. It’s always there, and, frankly, it’s the devil I know. Sometimes, I succumb to the immense self pity and self hatred it brings with it. Sometimes, I don’t even try to distract myself. I sit around listening to depressing music, reading and writing depressing poems, and thinking about all of the shitty things that have happened in my life. But let’s be real – that is neither working toward my own recovery nor fighting stigma. That’s me perpetuating every bad stereotype about depression that exists.
I want to say, clearly and without any room for debate, that I know that I have chemical issues in my body that are caused by illnesses beyond my control. I take the medications I take to manage my symptoms. I go to therapy to manage my symptoms. My mental health diagnoses are chronic, and I will live with them for the rest of my life. My Bipolar symptoms are not “just in my head,” I cannot “get over it” to cure my PTSD, my anxiety will not go away if I “just don’t think about it,” and my depression is not laziness. These things are all health conditions, and they are very real. If you are living in a similar situation, you know how tiring it is. For me, it’s a constant feeling that no one can possibly understand the stagnant, possibly poisoned, swamp that is my brain.
But sometimes, it’s far too easy for me to choose to sit in it and then complain that I’m wet and stinky and covered in mud.
Mental health recovery is, in large part, personal responsibility. We didn’t ask for it, but it’s one of our burdens. It’s up to us to take our medications, to adhere to whatever treatment professionals deem necessary, to know our triggers and make choices that allow us to avoid them. But, for me, it’s so easy to fall into the darkness and isolation that comes with any mental health struggle. And sometimes, when those of us living with these diagnoses convene in big groups (in person or online), it becomes really easy to fall into this detrimental cycle of focusing only on those diagnoses. Focusing on the worst moments. Focusing on our shared misery.
Do mental health struggles suck? HELL. YES. But, as Erez mentions in the blog above, our entire lives don’t. There are moments of stability. Moments of clarity. Moments of laughter.
I can only speak for myself here. So that’s what I’m going to do. Sometimes, even in those moments of being fairly symptom free, I’m so focused on the fact that my symptoms will return (they will), or rehashing how bad the last “episode” was (I hate that word, by the way, I’m just not sure what else to use here) that I can’t enjoy the present. This is, obviously, not conducive to mental wellness.
I want to fight stigma. That was the biggest reason I started this blog. I started it with the intention of sharing my experiences with the people who know me, to show that, while I am the “Sheila” they all know and (hopefully) love, I do have struggles. I started it to write openly and honestly about those struggles to demonstrate that there is no shame in having diagnoses, and in managing those diagnoses, and in being a fucking human being and not having all of my shit together at 28 years old.
And I stand firmly by my assertion that transparency is important. It’s one of the biggest weapons we have in the fight against stigma. It allows us to say, “Hey! You don’t need to treat that person living with Schizophrenia like they’re the devil, because look, I have a really substantial mental health diagnosis too, and you know and love me, and we’re not all that different.” or “Yeah, you know how every time you hear about mental health in the media it’s either violence or some token mascot in a 2 minutes video with springey music to make you feel good about humanity for a few? That’s not what this is about. You know me. You know that I am a full and real human. You know that I have dreams and aspirations and feelings and (I’d like to think) a decent sense of humor. Don’t shove mental health diagnoses into stupid, tiny categories that dehumanize people living with them, because I AM LIVING WITH THEM.”
That is the power of sharing our stories. We all strive to do that in a productive way.
But at what point does sharing become venting? And at what point does venting become not only counterproductive, but toxic to our own health and to the fight against stigma?
After all, when we talk about fighting stigma we talk about showing people us, with 100% clarity. About demonstrating time and time again that we are NOT our diagnoses. Our diagnoses are one component of us, but they are sure as hell not the end all, be all. And sometimes, I get stuck thinking that they are. I’m not talking about the times when my symptoms are all encompassing – those are the times that I really need to reach out for support. But sometimes, my symptoms are in the backseat, or even in the trunk. But I’m still focusing only on my diagnoses, only on how much it sucks to field all this stuff day in and day out. And I think I am doing myself a disservice. I am reducing myself to my diagnoses, and therefore, doing everything I say I am trying to fight against.
I agree with Erez here. To truly advocate for the eradication of stigma, we have to first kick that thing (whatever it is, exactly) that tells us to focus only on our struggles and not on our triumphs. We need to knock out that part of us that identifies only as people living with a mental health diagnosis(es). That voice that tells us that we are always going to be in the throws of crisis, or that we always need to be in the throws of crisis, in order to have “street cred” in this fight. We are not defined only by our crises. In large part, we get to write our own definitions. And I’m not looking to be “Sheila (n) shee-lah: Bipolar chick with PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety.” There’s a hell of a lot more to me than that. And I know there’s a hell of a lot more to everyone than that. If we can challenge the part of us that thinks we need to be only “a person with an illness” to fight this fight, I think we’ll become unstoppable.
AS ALWAYS, whether you love it or hate it, I want to hear your thoughts. This is an important conversation among advocates, I think. And if I missed something here, or if I’m off base, I want to hear it! Discussion is key, especially when considering such a complex topic. So, drop a comment, or hit me up on Facebook or Twitter
Thanks for reading. Please join the conversation!