All aboard, the Bipolar Express
Anyone can have wonky brain chemistry, Beth Beattie writes. So why was it so hard to admit it?
I was 35 when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The difficulty I had with "losing my mind" wasn't the fact that I was placed in four-point restraints, shot full of anti-psychotic medication and admitted to a psychiatric hospital. My real distress came from thinking people would find out.
I had a history of depression punctuated by brief periods of elevated moods. During the Christmas holidays nearly 15 years ago, my partner left me, seemingly without warning. I stopped sleeping and abandoned my medication. Over the course of a few days, my mood spiralled upward and I became floridly psychotic. I was convinced that my father was God and my nephew (who incidentally was born on Christmas Day three years earlier) was the Second Coming.
My family took me to Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. I presented as being agitated, argumentative and threatening. Treatment was forced on me. While traumatizing at the time, I don't question the care I received. I needed to be brought down from the moon and the stars.
I was told by a psychiatrist that I would have a difficult first year of recovery. He was right, but underestimated the duration of my struggle. While my mood settled during that first year with the help of medication, I felt the weight of my illness for many more.
I've never been ashamed of being mentally ill. Anyone can have wonky brain chemistry. But I was embarrassed and when I felt fragile, which was often, I wanted to take cover. I was one of the walking wounded, going through the motions of working, dating and spending time with family and friends but without much joy. I would smile, but it wouldn't reach my eyes.
I was mortified at the thought of people knowing I had a major mental illness. As a lawyer, I was concerned that if my bosses found out about my illness, I would not be trusted with challenging files. Also, I come from the kind of family that doesn't easily talk about uncomfortable issues outside of the home.
I was a victim of mental-health stigma – both societal and self-imposed.
In the early days following my diagnosis, I had a core group of about eight friends whom I relied upon for maintaining my sanity and keeping my secret. Other than my family and these confidants, I told no one of my illness.
My covertness did not stop word from spreading. Few things travel faster through the grapevine than rumours of mental instability. Over the years, I saw some of the people who were in the know and our shared acquaintances at law gatherings, school reunions and various other occasions. We did not discuss my illness, but I felt awkwardness hang in the air, both real and imagined.
As the years went by, my neurotransmitters continued to behave themselves. I realized it was not a given that I would get sick again. I will always have a mental illness, but it doesn't have to stop me from living a great life. I slowly returned to my old self – easygoing and quick to laugh, this time with my eyes participating.
A few months ago, two colleagues told me separately about mental illness in their immediate families. I listened to their tales without initially revealing mine. But I wondered if it might be helpful to share my thoughts on the importance of being pro-active in dealing with mental illness and what can be done to stave off relapse.
I took the plunge and told my colleagues about my past. Neither of them batted an eyelash and we had great discussions. I ended up meeting with their family members. I like to think I gave them helpful information as well as some comfort and hope. I was stunned at how liberating it was to talk about my experience.
Since coming out, it's been hard to shut me up. I've flown out of the mental-illness closet and, in doing so, experienced the greatest freedom of my life. My spirit, long suppressed, is soaring higher than ever.
I realize now how isolated I have been throughout my illness. In the past 14 years, I had only exchanged stories with one other person who has bipolar disorder. I had heard many stories of depression, but bipolarity raises unique issues. My isolation was due to my deliberate seclusion as well as the pervasiveness of societal stigma.
An unexpected outcome of disclosing my mental illness is the relief I see on the faces of people to whom I speak. Nine times out of 10, they tell me about their own challenges or those of a friend or family member.
My coming out culminated on my 50th birthday this spring when family members, friends, colleagues and I launched a team called the Bipolar Express for a mental-health cycling fundraiser. We unabashedly shouted: "Let's end the stigma and isolation of mental illness!"
Everyone is touched by mental illness, directly or indirectly, this we know for sure. But here is what I've learned from the past few months: Sharing my story and allowing room for an open exchange of ideas and information has made it easier for me and hopefully for the other people in my life.
I truly believe it can be invaluable for other people who have a mental illness to share their stories so that we can all conquer the negative stereotypes that are too often associated with "going mad."
Beth Beattie lives in Toronto.