I was going to write a different post for this week. I had one planned out on exploring the ways in which trauma physically impacts us, and I was going to toss in a review of a fantastic book on that topic. But then I saw three or four separate Twitter conversations with advocates wondering whether or not they were hypocrites for calling themselves “Advocates” while struggling with their mental health. This is a topic about which I am incredibly passionate.
If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you know how I roll – calling myself “Flexible” with subject matter and posting times would be a kind understatement. Sometimes, I simply free write in this public journal of mine; sometimes, I do intense research and carefully craft each word. Sometimes, I plan out elaborate posting schedules and then abandon them weeks later (OK, every time I’ve come up with an elaborate posting schedule, I’ve abandoned it. Schedules aren’t my thing, especially not elaborate ones. This “once a week” thing seems to be working for now, but who knows what will happen in the future!). OK, I digress.
Let’s get on with this month’s super flexible, free-write post.
Be real. 2017 was a rough year for many of us. I am no exception to that statement. New Years Day 2017 marked my admittance to a psychiatric unit and I spent the entire year trying to get stable. And I’m still not there. And that’s OK.
I’m a huge proponent of transparency. Here at Parallel Dichotomy, I like to call it “radical honesty.” I firmly believe that this openness is important both in recovery and in advocacy. For me, these two topics are inextricably linked.
I know that that is not the case for everyone; in fact, there are many people living with mental health diagnoses who do not feel driven toward advocacy at all, and I completely understand that. The need to keep your own business just that is completely OK. I know that many of my family and friends believe I should do the same and simply don’t get why I blog about “this stuff”. Isn’t it private? Wouldn’t it be better to wait until I’m “better” to reflect? Isn’t it important to recognize those components of my life which should remain private and keep them that way?
Now, I completely respect those who wish to keep their mental health struggles private. But the idea that we must do so bothers me. I challenge the core assumption of such statements. Shouldn’t the truth of living with mental illness be a private matter? For me, in my situation and by my convictions, the answer is a resounding “No.” Mostly because I know that those caveats will never be met.
The truth is harder to swallow than the seven different medications I have to take every day, but it must be spoken loudly and clearly. I have Bipolar Disorder and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I will never be “cured.” These things will never “go away.” There is no surgery to remove them. There is no vaccine to eradicate them. There is no antibiotic to clear them up. That’s not what mental health recovery is about. Recovery is about learning to cope with and manage our diagnoses. And for me, personally, it’s also about sharing the things I learn through that process to help educate others- both those living with mental health diagnoses who may benefit from the things that I am learning, and those who do not live with those diagnoses, but seek to understand what it’s like to live with them.
I did not ring in this year at a hospital (thankfully), but I did come out the gate swingin’ as I’m adjusting to a new medication during a depressive crash following a hypomanic episode.
Medication changes always seem to hit me hard. Some of it is psychological – I know that things are different and I can trick myself into believing that every new feeling is a side effect. This, I understand, is common for many of us. Some of it is legitimately physical, though, too. Dizziness, tiredness, nausea.
Regardless of the root, my reaction to new medication is still always strong and uncomfortable. Sometimes, the side effects ease off and I adjust; sometimes, my psychiatrist decides that we need to end a medication and start a new one. I’m still not on the “right” meds. When I am, manic episodes won’t happen and my depression will be under control. Finding the correct combination of medication is a massive jigsaw puzzle. There are over 1,000 possible combinations of medications out there, and every single human brain has a differences in chemical composition. My treatment team and I are still working to find the chemicals to balance my imbalances and make my life a little more stable.
In moments like these, I sometimes question my “right” to be an advocate. Am I being a hypocrite for spreading education and hope for recovery in mental health while struggling? I don’t think so.
I’m not “out of the woods” yet, but I’m further along than I was. I began blogging about a year ago, while I was still in the partial hospitalization program to which the inpatient unit discharged me. I was nowhere near “stable.”
I was ashamed and I was nervous to talk to anyone about what had happened. After some encouragement from amazing friends, though, I decided to start chronicling my recovery process, and it’s become as much a part of my recovery as therapy. For better or worse. I didn’t think of myself as an “advocate” at the start, but I did think of myself as someone who was doing what little I could to spread understanding and fight stigma in my own little corner of the world.
I had many friends and family who could not understand how I had found myself in such crisis. They could not connect “bipolar” with “Sheila,” despite the fact that I had, in fact, been living with symptoms of Bipolar Disorder since I was 19 years old. But they didn’t know that, and neither did I.
Personally, I could not understand how I had unwittingly made the jump from mental health worker and Social Work student to mental health patient. Being naturally inclined toward writing, though, and with all of the free time that came with losing my job, I figured telling my story may be worth something to someone. Did I think that that story would have reach beyond my immediate circle? No. I did not. But I felt compelled to share the process.
Since starting this blog, I’ve heard from people that reading my stories of triumphs and difficulties have inspired them to feel less ashamed, to get help, to go to the hospital, to continue taking their medications and going to their appointments. This is meaningful to me, to my own recovery. And I feel the same encouragement and inspiration reading and watching the work of other advocates. This inspires me to continue sharing, because, at the very least, I know that there is some sort of good, however small, coming out of the hard times. I’ve learned a hell of a lot about myself this year through therapy and treatment, but I’ve also learned a hell of a lot through talking with other advocates. The mental health community on Twitter has helped me challenge my internal stigmas. Hearing the insights others have gained in their own recovery has compelled me toward my own insights. Showing up with honesty and openness helps everyone living with mental illness, because it does help challenge the 2-D stereotypes and over-simplifications of mental health diagnoses so prevalent in our society and it also shows all of us, at all stages of recovery, that growth and healing are possible.
I am here, right now, coming out of the depths of a depressive episode with new chemicals coursing through my veins and brain, and I am writing about it.
Society knows that mental illness is hard. Society knows that those of us with mental illness live our lives in a different way than those who do not have mental illness. These are facts. Advocacy, to me, is accepting that, validating that, and then flipping the script. Showing that, yes, my life is different; yeah, I have to take a bunch of pills and go to therapy and meet with a psychiatrist and manage my schedule and avoid some of the things that many take for granted for the sake of maintaining wellness. But I’m also a human. I have good days and bad days. I have hobbies. I have likes and dislikes. I struggle with some of the same things every other human being struggles with. I am living my life, and attempting to do so to the best of my ability, just like every other human on this planet. By sharing both the struggles and successes of my journey, I’d like to think that I’m painting a full picture of living with mental illness instead of just perpetuating stereotypes.
Many of my family and friends struggled (and still struggle) to understand my drive to do this. It’s one thing to reflect on one’s experiences and struggles after the fact. People do that all the time with all kinds of life experiences. Especially writers. But I’m not waiting until after the fact. And I have refused to do so since day one of this project. Since starting this blog, I have had 3 hypomanic episodes, I’ve had too many med changes to count, I’ve attempted suicide, I’ve been to a crisis stabilization house. I still get manic. I still get depressed. I have flashbacks. I have nightmares. I have insomnia. I have paranoid thoughts.
I am not my illness, though. My illness does inform a portion of my life and it always will, but it’s the things I do and learn along the way as I move through life that define me as a person. And it’s sharing those things that define me as an advocate. It’s the balance. It’s the honesty. It’s the journey. All of it.
Am I less of an advocate for being symptomatic? No. I am not. And neither are you.