I have been fortunate enough to have a really supportive family to help me cope with my bipolar disorder. Obviously they find it difficult to understand and sometimes they get annoyed with my mood swings. It is hard to cope with someone’s mood, energy levels and ability to function changing for no obvious reason. On the whole they are patient, they listen to me and they realise that it is not my fault. I am extremely grateful for their support.
However, this does not mean that I have been immune from the stigma around mental health conditions. Often it is unstated and subtle but it is there nonetheless.
Although many of my friends have been very kind and supportive they will never bring up my condition. Friends won’t ask me how I have been coping or anything like that. I understand that they find it a difficult subject to broach. I too perhaps would find it difficult to directly ask someone else about their mental health condition. You don’t know what to say or how much they want to give away. Perhaps they wanted to tell you they had the condition but don’t want to bring it up again.
The trouble with this avoidance of discussing mental health conditions is that it is often based on a separation of mental health conditions from other illnesses. You wouldn’t hear that someone had been diagnosed with cancer or with heart disease and then never again ask them how they were coping. There is this divide created between mental health and physical health which seems unfair.
As far as I am concerned my bipolar illness is a physical illness too. Bipolar changes everything in my body. My sleep pattern and my appetite are affected. My body can feel heavy and tired or wired up and ready to go. How fast my mental processes are running is affected. My vision is affected when I see things moving around or observe strange colours. Bipolar is an illness of the brain and the body.
Often when I have told friends about some of my more severe symptoms they have been shocked. On the whole they have been very kind and listened without saying anything judgemental. However, I do have people saying things like ‘but you seem fine right now’ as if someone with bipolar can’t possibly act normally for a while. Or ‘but I have never seen you act that way’ as if they must have seen evidence of your illness for it to be real. These comments aren’t said with any bad intentions but they do demonstrate a lack of understanding.
The most hurtful but honest thing someone has said to me was ‘I used to think that you were just a weak person’. After suffering from an anxiety condition later they realised that anyone can be affected by a mental illness and it does not demonstrate a lack of character and will power. I also got asked in a rather judgemental fashion about who was paying for all my treatment. I care a lot for both of these people and I don’t think they intended to hurt my feelings but they did.
I am sure that people think other negative things about me due to my condition but would never say them. It is because I feel a great sense of shame and stigma around my illness that I chose to blog here anonymously. I just hope that as people start to talk about their mental illnesses to their family and friends a greater level of understanding, sympathy and patience can be achieved.