Why I choose to speak up…
As most people already know, since being formally diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder a few years ago, I have made it my mission to speak up and try to normalise conversations around mental health and mental illness. I’ve always lived with Bipolar Disorder, and deep down I always knew I had a mental illness. I just didn’t have a medical name for what I lived with. Prior to diagnosis, Bipolar was a familiar stranger, a relatable quote on Pinterest, a meaningless label. It was a ghost that haunted me, and I knew it was there, I could feel it, I was just afraid that no one would believe me if I told them.
I spent such a long time believing that genuine symptoms of my illness were parts of my personality. It was who I was and nothing could change that. I felt crazy, and lazy, and every negative feeling in between. I still struggle with that, despite the work I’ve done to help others not feel that way. All I wanted when I started to speak about my mental illness was to show people it’s okay not to be okay, to be the person I needed years ago, when I was young, suffering alone in silence and drowning in fake smiles.
I wanted to share my story, in hope it would inspire others…
I wanted to be proud of my mental illness. But I would lying if I said that journey has been easy. Once you stand up and say, this is who I am, you become even more vulnerable than ever. You put yourself out there, and whilst most people are good and kind and receptive, not everyone out there is. I give away parts of myself and my life, that leave an open door for criticism and rejection. I pour my heart out into my writing, serve it up on a platter and hope that it isn’t devoured. And most of the time, I feel okay about that.
But I don’t always feel okay about it. There are many days where I still feel ashamed. Where I write a post, and delete it, censor it and change a few minor details or leave it to perish in my drafts. There are still moments where my finger hovers nervously over the mouse-pad, worrying if what I share will backfire on me. I click publish, and a rush of anxiety floods through me. I wait. I wonder. I regret, almost instantly. Why?
I’m proud but I’m still cynical
I am supposed to be proud of my bipolar. I’m supposed to wear it as some sort of badge of honour, a mark of survival, a sign of strength and humility, the nurturer of my empathy and understanding. I’m not supposed to be ashamed, but some days I am. On those days I don’t feel like an advocate for mental health, on those days I feel like a fraud, a woman who doesn’t practise what she preaches. (My friend L wrote a beautiful piece that perfectly illustrates this feeling, which you can check out here).
Here I am, a woman who says it’s okay to talk but who is still capable of repelling conversation like a magnet to plastic. And I feel like the plastic. I feel fake. Because deep down there are still moments where I feel deeply ashamed of being mentally ill. Despite countless campaigns, despite all the people whom I admire constantly showing me it’s alright to feel the way I do. Despite all the ‘good press’ I still feel ‘bad’. I still have flashbacks of manic episodes and shudder and cringe and frantically skip to the next thought in my head. I still wonder if the words I speak will be used against me in the future. I still think, what if?
What if, that employer will discriminate against me?
What if, that guy will run a mile?
What if, people think I’m a bad mum?
What if people think I’m a bad person?
What if the things I say are used against me?
I want to be entirely truthful for the benefit of others. But I’m still terrified. Stigma still suffocates me, it still stops me in my tracks when I’m so close to the finish line. It still has so much control over me and it’s because it still exists. There’s a lot of talk around mental health in the media, and it’s great, but as a patient I often wish that the passion is reflected into services. So many people care but the sad reality is that people who work in any type of support service become apathetic when they are fed up of fighting to work against a failing system. When their empathy is crushed to pieces by processes that just don’t work.
Words will always have meaning, but actions speak for themselves…
When I hear great things, success stories and anti stigma talks it leaves me feeling inspired. But then I find myself in crisis and a family member tries to get me an emergency prescription out of hours, they’re promised a call back and it never comes. They call the hospital that was purpose built as a mental health facility, only to be told to call an ambulance or go to general A&E.I don’t want to do that. I’m not dying. I just feel like I am. I self stigmatise and tell myself I don’t deserve an ambulance. Then I make my way to A&E and feel frightened and lash out, and I’m told to ‘have more respect’ when the fact is, I shouldn’t even be there. But I have nowhere else to go. I wait for hours alone to see a psychiatrist, and by that point I feel like such a burden on the health system that I give up. I tell them what they need to hear, and they send me home, where my hypocritical self wallows in self-pity and suffers in silence. The exact thing I’m trying not to do.
It’s in moments like these I feel like talks are token gestures, a tick box exercise for organisations, politicians and funders. I feel like a walking outcome. A buzzword. Like every hand I shake just needs me to evidence something. I know that this thinking is inherently cynical, and I know the right intentions vastly outweigh the wrong ones. Still, it is fast becoming farcical when there is so much spotlight on an issue yet the fundamental every day services designed for the issues we talk about are still failing in some areas. The speeches in parliament are not heard when you’re a patient sitting in a corridor sobbing. They do not echo into the phone conversations from staff who have called in sick with stress.
It’s an inner conflict, but it will continue…
But just because I feel that way about mental health services it doesn’t mean I want the light to go out. I want it to keep shining on the issue of mental health, even though it is something I have an inner conflict with. There’s a great quote from Shannon Alder, where she says ‘You don’t have to say everything to be a light. Sometimes a fire built on a hill will bring interested people to your campfire.’ and it’s true. You can be a beacon of light for many people and that’s okay, your struggles deserves to be in the spotlight. But, you don’t have to be, sometimes conversations around the campfire can be intimate, but still have the ability to gather people around. To, help them tell a story.
Tokenism in politics, in society, it happens all the time. Despite knowing that, I’m glad mental health is having its time at the forefront. I’m proud. But I can’t be proud all of the time. I can’t be blind just because it makes me feel better. I can’t just pretend that everything is sunshine and roses. When I log out of my socials, and get thrown into the lion pit of reality, I can’t become complacent. I need to remember why I’m speaking up in the first place but I also need to stop putting pressure on myself to solve things. I’m ill, I’m recovering. I’m am more than my experiences, and my experiences are more than evidence.
I want to help, but I’m still healing…
I can’t pretend that I’m never ashamed of my mental illness, that is just like using a plaster to heal a deep wound. I need to be honest with myself, I want to use my lived experience to implement lasting change, but I don’t want to just be another voice that falls on deaf ears. I know there are many people out there, just like me who are scared that the topic of mental health is just a trend, and I get that. There’s always that danger. I sometimes feel like I jumped on a trendy train, with no real, meaningful, destination. But like many others, I was just a woman who decided to talk about the ugly side of mental illness, I was just the mum who admitted she struggles, all I did was finally talk about something I’ve fought for 16 years. I may have found opportunity within that, but it doesn’t magically erase the complexity of my illness.
I’m still ashamed, and that’s okay. I’m working on that every single day. I need to admit that. I want to admit that. I want to encourage people to talk but on the flip side I don’t want anyone to feel as though they have to talk about their experience for it to be valid. I don’t want to seem like some success story while I’m still failing. all. the. time. I want people to know it’s okay to fail, to feel defeated. Your survival is your true success story. You are still strong if you are silent, and you are still human if you share your story. There will be times you still feel ashamed, there will be times where you feel guilty, but the important thing to remember is that you don’t have to feel that way forever, and you don’t have to do it alone.