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Monday, May 07, 2012 10:04 AM

May is Mental Health Month.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 20.9 million American adults, or about 9.5 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year, have a mood disorder. Mood disorders include bipolar disorder. It is also estimated that 1 in 4 people will encounter a mental health issue in their lifetime.

I have talked to various individuals recently about mental illness — people of all ages and backgrounds — having personal experience with a disorder or disorders. The disorders ranged from anxiety to ADD to OCD to depression, but what they all have in common is the desire of each person afflicted to be like everybody else. It’s a daily struggle.

Everyone has ups and downs. I know a girl whose ups and downs are not “normal,” however. Being bipolar means that for stretches of time, she can be so depressed it is hard for her to get out of bed and function. Things she normally enjoys, like playing with her kids, are devoid of happiness and fulfillment. She feels empty, aching and heavy. The simplest tasks are insurmountable. She is a writer, but during these times, she has no motivation and is mentally blank. She hurts all over. She doesn’t want to see or talk to anyone. She sometimes cries for no discernible reason. As strange as it may sound, it seems to help; she feels a little relief after a good cry. Music helps. Sometimes all she can do is listen to songs that seem to “get” her and how she’s feeling. She’s learned, oddly enough, it’s more helpful to “embrace” the depressive episode than try to combat it. Overall, she feels horrible — she just wants to feel better again.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, when the “high” (mania) kicks in, her brain is bombarded with thoughts so fast and furious that she can’t write them down as quickly as they come. She feels an explosion of creativity and the writing ideas are endless. She is compelled to constantly “do” in this state — clean, bake, exercise, shop; she can’t stop. She is euphorically happy; in the car, upbeat music is on the radio and she is singing at the top of her lungs with the windows down. Everything seems perfect. She feels invincible and can, therefore, act impulsively. In this state, she finds it unbelievable that she was ever depressed.

The lows are more frequent than the highs. It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining or if everything is going right; she can plummet into a downward spiral. She thinks part of why she likes fall and winter and rainy or snowy days — weather everyone else seems to dislike — is because there’s no pressure to be happy when the weather’s “bad.” If she’s depressed on a rainy day, she feels somewhat justified.

However, the weather can be wonderfully sunny and the depression can roll in like a dark fog and hang on. And hang on. And hang on. She just has to wait it out, let it subside, and even though it feels hopeless and never ending, she has to remind herself that she will feel good again — until the next depressive episode. Because of the way she is, she feels guilty. Like a burden. There are times that she just doesn’t want to be here. She wonders what’s wrong with her; why can’t she be “normal?” Everyone gets sad. But this is so much more than just “sadness.”

From the outside, this girl has the “picture perfect” life. When people find out about her reality, they seem shocked. They kindly tell her she’s pretty, she’s smart, she’s funny, she has a beautiful family; she has it all ... so why is she depressed? I’ve also tried to convince her of these things, but...
The girl is me.

I’m not big on labels and I am reluctant to open up about myself. I don’t want people to view me differently or treat me differently. I want the stigma associated with mental illness to go away but I know that talking about it will be the only way to take steps toward that — one of the goals of Mental Health Month. There are many misconceptions and the media’s portrayal doesn’t always help. (Hello, Britney Spears meltdown.) Bipolar disorder seems to carry with it a particular stigma and “deranged” reputation. Unqualified people magically morph into psychiatrists and ignorantly and inaccurately throw the “bipolar” label around all the time, to simply write off anyone whom they perceive to be “crazy.” Unless people are doctors who’ve administered a thorough exam, just as people can’t necessarily spot the cancer patient in the room, they have no idea who is battling what psychological disorder.

I realize there are people with good intentions, but if people really want to mean well, they should research. Talking to someone who has been given a diagnosis and really listening to them is one way. Telling someone with depression to, “Smile!” or “Pray about it!”  might come from the best place in one’s heart and doing those things might not hurt, but if only it were that simple. It also doesn’t help to say, “You just need to change your mindset.” Again, great in theory. When dealing with a chemical imbalance, however, (which has been discovered in the brains of depressed people) that can only go so far. Just as I’d never profess to know what it’s like to be in the mind and body of someone with cancer, if people don’t have clinical depression, they don’t know what it’s like to be someone who does. People seem to need physical evidence to believe someone really isn’t well. Depression is like being in a full body cast. Every part of the body is affected. Mental illnesses should be taken no less seriously than physical illnesses. The brain just happens to be different from that of a “normal” person.

It doesn’t help the clinically depressed when others assume they can guess what it’s like. They can’t. And that erroneous assumption makes those diagnosed with it feel worse in that there’s something fundamentally wrong. As well-meaning as people can be, it’s frustrating to hear some of their cures, such as, “Count your blessings!” I’m extremely grateful for all my blessings and well aware of all the “real” problems in the world. This adds another layer of guilt and distress — knowing that, logically, I should be happy. Logically, I should. In reality, due to this chemical imbalance, I’m not. Many people with loving families and successful careers, such as Kurt Cobain and Sylvia Plath, have fallen into infinite pits of despair and taken their own lives. These disorders go beyond logic — beyond counting blessings. I don’t expect everyone to understand. I still don’t understand.

While there might not be one right thing to say to people you love who are depressed, simply loving them for who they are, the way they are, helps.

I know there are people who care about me and my happiness and I sometimes exhaust myself trying to appear happy when I’m not. (It’s hard to feign excitement over a picture of someone’s puppy when you just don’t want to be there.) I think I get by this way, but a select few in my world can see right through me and know when I’m not “fine.” Though my husband still has a hard time understanding why I am the way I am, he has learned to just love and accept me. He’s stopped trying to “fix me,” because he can’t.

If you believe that you or a loved one is suffering from a mental illness, get help. MentalHealthAmerica.net is a website devoted to mental health issues. Their website states to call, “1-800-273-TALK if you, a friend or a loved one is going through a tough time in your life and you need someone to talk to.” The site also offers other information such as how to find treatment or a support group. You are not alone. I know it can be scary to talk about it. I know this alone doesn’t define who I am - but it’s part of who I am. If I can help just one person, that’s enough for me. Maybe if more of us start talking, the less scary it will be.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, November 06, 2012 4:05 PM
 

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