Some mornings I have breakfast and share a coffee with my husband. As soon as I hear the door shut, I wrap myself in the covers and close my eyes. On others, like today, lifting them seems akin to giving birth – mammoth and painful task, one that I’m not prepared for.
Although the heaviness of bipolar depression keeps me shackled to my bed, anxiety also holds me captive, allowing me to avoid the panic everyday living sometimes induces.
I grew up with anxiety. I thought I had tamed the beast by cloaking it nonchalance and composure. But when a mixed episode struck almost a year ago, anxiety tore through the worn fabric of my persona. I had panic attacks and obsessed over non-existent illnesses. I became stuck on the what-if carousel, steering me to the all-time depths of twenty years’ obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Combined with the turbulence of mixed bipolar disorder, mental illness became the driver and I its unwilling passenger. I closed my eyes during those early months, refusing to see the cliff we were headed for. If I were to open my eyes, I would have lost control and be as weak as I had always feared. Once I did open my eyes, it was too late.
I am intelligent and capable, qualities I couldn’t reconcile with anxiety. A strong person wouldn’t take fifty consecutive pregnancy tests or make everyday decisions through self-torment and sleepless nights. They wouldn’t be repeatedly admitted to a psychiatric hospital, colouring in mandalas and making paper mobiles. They wouldn’t be consumed with suicide, punching themselves as punishment for their weakness. They would be able to get out of bed, shower, work and keep a clean house. They could achieve.
On the initial mental illness ride, achievement was my blindfold. With it, I could pretend I was in the driver’s seat – intelligent, capable and, subsequently, strong. But the day I stepped into the emergency room, the blindfold was ripped from my eyes. I was but a passenger en route to destruction. That day my life ended, and began.
I have talked freely about my struggles with mental illness in my inner circle, but have felt shame in revealing the past year’s ride to ruin. I felt reluctant to share details that would paint a conflicting picture to the one I had portrayed. You are a strong person, several of my friends remarked. They hadn’t expected me to fall ill. My entire identity was built on an image which was now slowly dissolving with each revelation of mental illness.
My friends and I were not aware of the difference between personal strength and character, and the symptoms of mental illness. Like the flu cannot call my strength and tenacity into question, neither can anxiety or depression. I had denied myself the privilege of living authentically by closing my eyes to the truth. My denial and silence around my battle with mental illness reinforced my belief that mental illness is unacceptable and renders me weak and powerless. Accepting it and breaking that silence, and the subsequent isolation, have given me the power to end a cycle of self-blame and self-hate.
I am relinquishing the driver’s seat, but not the power to shame and facilitate self-hatred. I can only lean back and accept that mental illness will accompany me on this journey. But we will remain two very distinct entities, simply heading in the same direction.
As denial and silence had isolated me and reaffirmed my erroneous beliefs around living with mental illness, I am taking the pledge to blog for mental health in 2014 as written by the founder:
I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.
If you’d like to participate, click on the link or image above. Every voice makes a difference.