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On the Pursuit of Happiness

Posted Feb 13 2013 12:00am
Curating posts for the  Life is Sweet  project has been unlike anything I imagined it to be. I initially thought I would reach out to some bloggers and friends about writing and go from there. When I posted a call for writers on Facebook and Twitter, I received a lot of interest from people from various parts of my life - those I've met through social media, people from schools I've attended over the years, former members of my Weight Watchers meetings - so many people were ready and willing to tell their stories and I've been overcome by their bravery and passion for this initiative. The following post was submitted by a woman who asked to remain anonymous. It was a story that people close to her told her not to write, but she felt adamant that it be included, even if posted anonymously. It's a story that needs to be told and I am so glad it is a part of this series.

I am a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a friend, a scholar, a doctor’s assistant, a cook, an artist… But when it comes to being bipolar, I am anonymous… and that’s exactly how society likes it.

I could tell you that growing up I wasn’t a stranger to yelling, fighting, or even police at the door but I would be lying. I wish I could tell you that by the age of 7 I didn’t know what the phrases ‘dry alcoholic’, ‘withdrawal’, or ‘suicide watch’ was… but I can’t. Growing up, I lived somewhere in between my father’s rage and my brother’s addictions. I couldn’t bear to bring my mother any more pain so in spite of all the chaos at home, I became the perfect child –on the honour roll, part of many sports teams and extra-curricular activities; I was quiet, polite, never acted out… The truth is that I was invisible –and that’s how I wanted to be. I became overweight at a very young age, silencing my pain with food. I lived a dual existence – my home life was filled with secrets and tension while outside of the home, I was outgoing, bubbly and eager to help.

Throughout my teenage years, I gained more weight, and with the weight problems I became even more invisible. I felt ugly, unlovable and unknown to everyone around me. I withdrew even more into my own world. My music got angrier, my poetry got darker and I became a shell to the world. I started starving myself and working excessive hours. My mind became increasingly clouded with negative thoughts that I couldn’t seem to turn off. These thoughts kept me from sleeping at night, which lasted for weeks at a time. I started looking for my self-worth in damaged boyfriends, thinking that if I could fix one of them then perhaps I could fix myself too.  I was very wrong.

After 8 months of starvation and purging I realized that my behaviour wasn’t healthy. I started practicing normal eating habits and despite gaining back some of the 35lbs that I had lost over 2 months, I felt confident in my new healthy lifestyle. Surprisingly, I received comments such as “Whatever you were doing before was working! Why’d you stop?” and “you’ve let yourself go again”. I decided to distance myself from negative influences and when the time came to choose a university, I chose one that I knew nobody at – a fresh start. As part of my spring cleaning, I ended a toxic romantic relationship however it didn’t go as planned. That was the night I was raped.

That single encounter changed my life forever. Just as I had kept my family life a secret, I had also kept this relationship to myself. I had segregated myself and I realized that I had no one to turn to – I felt deserving of this punishment for all the secrets I’d kept. All alone, I suffered through nightmares, flashbacks, and extreme anxiety around men. My insomnia came back with a vengeance and the relentless, negative thoughts got worse. That began my 3 year battle with cutting myself.

Somewhere in between the intense depression, the post-traumatic stress and the anxiety, I fell in love. Let me rephrase that: Someone fell in love with me – without make-up and self-respect, I found love. Now it wasn’t smooth sailing – in fact, he had many similarities to the men in my family but he stuck by my side through the nightmares and the anxiety and loved me unconditionally. This was a feeling I had never felt before and never thought I truly ever deserved – unconditional love for me just the way I was. While he dealt with his own demons, I started to face mine. I found a way to sleep at night, started to exercise and eat healthy.

My mood swings and anxiety did not change though. I felt like two people in one body. I was on a rollercoaster ride of high highs and low lows. When I was down, everything felt like an impossible feat. Getting out of bed in the morning was like climbing a mountain. My mind was filled with endless snap shots of bad memories and feelings of worthlessness. I would avoid going out with friends because I didn’t have the emotional or mental energy to socialize. Even finding the words to hold a conversation brought on anxiety so I made up excuses to avoid the world. The more depressed I got, the more reclusive I was.

When I was in a state of mania I felt like I was on top of the world! I would wake up full of energy and go out and party until 6am. I could get an idea in my head and a simple spot on the wall would become 6 hours of cleaning; a nostalgic photograph turned into hours of sketching; an essay that I was reluctant to write would come streaming out of my fingertips without restraint. I was in my happiest state – full of productive energy and creativity. Mind would race with excitement and happy memories rather than negativity. The problem was that it was extremely short lived. Before I knew it, I was back into a state of depression, yearning for those few manic days to return. With my boyfriend’s support, I decided to seek medical help.

In the office of a female psychiatrist, for the first time in many years, I found the courage to say the words I’d been running from for year: “I was raped.” After the assessment was over, the psychiatrist summarized her thoughts to me. She believed that under the circumstances of my assault, she would say that the word ‘rape’ was too strong a term – that it was more of a sexual assault or perhaps even misunderstanding on his part. The truth is that I didn’t know what to call it and I didn’t care - I was just proud to be able to call it by a name after years of silence. To bare my soul and receive that kind of a response from someone that was supposed to listen and not judge was a slap in the face. I was broken all over again. The nightmares came back and the cutting resumed.

At my follow-up visit, my family doctor gave me the news - I was diagnosed with type II Bipolar. Bipolar type II is characterized by frequent and intense episodes of depression however it is often misdiagnosed as moderate or severe depression. The difference is that we also experience episodes of high-energy and impulsiveness referred to as hypo mania. These episodes do not reach the severity of hyper mania that is characteristic of its type I brother. As a result of my diagnosis, I was prescribed a mood stabilizer to help flat-line my moods – it made me dizzy and nauseous. While it took away the extremity of the depression, it also took away those high episodes that I loved so much. I struggled to stay on the medication.

One day, after a huge fight with my boyfriend, I went into a rage. My emotions were so intense, the hurt so great that I couldn’t breathe. As soon as I was alone, I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut myself with more anger than ever before. I was bleeding and couldn’t get it to stop for 3 day. For the first time ever, I found it hard to conceal the wound. I was embarrassed, paranoid and scared to see how easily I could really hurt myself. That was the last time I cut myself.  

It’s been a few years since then. I have worked through a lot of my past and still have a long way to go. With the support of a new family doctor, I have stayed on my medication and started setting goals again. I have been able to lose 57lbs and completed numerous 5km runs for charity. I graduated university with an honours BA in Psychology and have a very successful and rewarding career in healthcare. Recently, I have relocated to a smaller city with my boyfriend of over 8 years and we are now talking about engagement.

But the claws of mental illness are always present; even while writing this blog, I find myself filled with mixed emotions ; pride, excitement, sadness, but mostly fear. Numerous times I have questioned whether I should even submit this piece – if I’m ready for people to see the bare truth of me. Will I be pitied or even worse, will my successes be overshadowed by the stigma of my illness? On the other hand, I have acted ‘normal’ for so long - despite my private struggles - that even some of the people that are aware of my diagnosis tend to see my struggles as a watered down version of mental illness – not truly mentally ill enough. At times, my symptoms have been downplayed. When I’ve needed a shoulder to lean on, I’ve been told that my struggles are the same as everyone else’s and that I should just deal with it. The stigmas and ignorance of mental illness is all around us and by keeping silent we are only condoning these types of attitudes. For this reason, I have decided to swallow my fear of judgement as well as my fear of not being ‘ill enough’ and share my story. I may be anonymous but I will not be silenced any more.

The truth is that yes, I am bipolar. It is something that I will never be rid of. It may hinder me in some ways – make it a bit harder to socialize or to explain the intensity of my emotions at times - but it does not dictate who I am. If you were to meet me in the workplace or walking down the street you would probably have no idea that I suffer from a mental illness. Despite the popular bipolar stereotypes, I am not out of control or any more irrational than anyone else. I hold myself responsible for all my actions, both good and bad.
In actuality, there is not one part of my life that I am ashamed of. If anything, I have become more empathetic and caring towards the people in my life – be it family, friends or patients that I come into contact with. My struggles and successes have taught me that everyone has a story – mental illness or not – and we all deserve to have a safe and caring environment to share that in. I have put a lot of effort into keeping healthy relationships in my life. My diagnosis has not kept me from having a great career nor has it held me back from having an amazing relationship with my mother. It has not stopped me from having an ever-growing relationship with my boyfriend or dreaming about getting engaged and having children. In many ways, I am just like you.

In 2002, Health Canada reported that about 20% of people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Most likely, if you are not the 1 in 5 that struggles with a mental health issue then you know at least one person who is. The true problem with our society is that just as I did in my childhood, we prefer to keep the messy truth hidden behind closed doors and only present the best possible versions of ourselves. But secrecy breeds segregation and when it comes to mental illness, being cut off from the world is the last thing we need. In our weakest moments, we need love and a friendly shoulder to lean on.

Friends, family and society alike need to talk openly about this topic and the stigmas surrounding it and learn to listen and not judge. Those of us who suffer from mental illness should not be ashamed or embarrassed to be ourselves around those who care about us. Instead we need a safe and welcoming atmosphere to openly discuss our daily struggles and successes. Mental illness does not automatically negate happiness, success or relationships from our lives. In truth, it makes me appreciate these moments more because I’ve seen some really dark days. We must learn to embrace our struggle and relish in those small successes that others would so easily dismiss. These successes may be as simple as submitting a blog entry, despite the fear and self-doubt that it may bring. The truth is that at the end of the day, we are all just people, battling our own demons, on the pursuit of happiness.

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