After perusing the dark, forum-laden corners of the Internet for people’s experiences with medication, therapy, and whatever else, I came across something I knew but didn’t want to acknowledge about having bipolar disorder: for the most part, it seems like people are scared to talk about it. Now, maybe I just live in a relatively stigma-free bubble – because I am mostly around myself – but I am undoubtedly more comfortable than most when it comes to discussing my struggles with mental illness.
Barring the post I just wrote about internalized stigma, I’ve never experienced anything more than insensitive or dismissive comments about my mental health. I haven’t once felt like people are scared of me, think I’m unpredictable, or find me untrustworthy, but maybe I’m just naïve.
Granted, I do have a lot of social paranoia. I constantly think people are talking about me, spreading rumors about me, and just generally on the verge of spontaneously hating me. But I’ve never attributed this anxiety to my openness with mental health, per se.
I think I’ve made it pretty clear by now that I try to make a joke out of most of what I experience. It’s somewhat self-absorbed to bring up depression at a party, so if someone asks why I’ve been around so much or why I haven’t been around, I’m honest, but I always keep it short, drench what I say in an apology, and throw in a meme-like joke about “existential dread.” Unless someone takes genuine interest, relates to what I have to say, or is a close friend, I usually drop it. The last thing I want is to see people’s eyes darting around nervously as they let out a forced giggle in response to some drunk girl saying she has bipolar disorder. So I guess in a way, I am worried people will be scared of me.
You have to admit a stereotype was immediately conjured in your head when I said “some drunk girl saying she has bipolar disorder:” scantily clad, mascara running down cheeks (okay, this has happened but whatever), frizzy hair, and just generally wild and unpredictable.
But my bipolar disorder doesn’t present like this. Does anyone’s? I doubt it. Sure, when I’m hypo, I drink more, flirt more, and leave the house more in general. But when I’m depressed, I still go out sometimes if someone explicitly invites me. I make a conscious effort to maintain friendships because swinging back-and-forth between wanting to see people every day to wanting to see people never is not exactly a good recipe for friendship.
Now, my closest friends do notice the changes in my behavior, but for the most part, I keep things in check. Only the walls of my room have really seen me lose it, and I plan on keeping it that way. Have I done stupid things while hypomanic? Yes. But on the surface, it’s stuff I can pass off as a drunken mistake. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but it’s the college-campus norm at least.
There are moments, however, when I feel that my bipolar disorder consumes so much of my life that I embody a “crazy girl” persona by virtue of my candidness. So perhaps there is an element of histrionic desire for validation in my openness. Sure, I want to humanize mental illness, but hey, no one’s motives are completely altruistic.
Flashback to childhood time: when I was a kid, I used to make up having these awful stomachaches that eventually became real because I dwelled on them so much. Was I really sick? No, but that didn’t matter. When people acknowledged my “pain” and treated me like I was actually sick, I felt better. I felt validated. But when people started to catch on and told me to “get over it,” my stomachaches only persisted. I was kind of a weird kid, and not to be all woe-is-me, but I know I just wanted to be heard.
I am a little bit – okay, a lot – like this with my mental illness, and believe it or not, it’s actually a symptom of hypomanic episodes with depressive features. (The social paranoia is a symptom of depressive episodes with hypomanic features. It’s a complicated spectrum. I know.) Anyway, it’s difficult for me to admit this, but I do want people to say, “yes, you have a mental illness,” instead of offering advice, prayers, or suggestions picked up from case studies (looking at you, psych majors). Fair warning though: if you are open to listening to me, I will definitely consider you a close friend, so consider whether you can handle that before indulging me.
Seriously though, I don’t want to get Freudian, but I can trace a lot of my social woes back to childhood. I have always had self-inflicted issues with maintaining friendships and difficulty with feeling misunderstood. I know how that sounds, but I don’t mean it in an angsty teenager sense. But I have been caught between wanting to be an individual and wanting to fit in since second grade, so my over-analysis in order to walk that tightrope is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I inevitably alienate myself by trying too hard, not trying hard enough, or being overly self-conscious/self-deprecating.
Please don’t get me wrong. The friends I do have are amazing, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything, but I’m no social butterfly. Plus, being constantly inundated with social butterflies thanks to social media doesn’t help my feeling of social inadequacy. In reality, I probably have a relatively normal social life, but I still obsess over meeting some unrealistic expectation to be well liked by lots of people. That obviously says a lot more about me than it does about society, and it’s embarrassing to even admit. But again, that’s why it’s so important to acknowledge the nuanced ways mental illness seeps into everyday life. I start to believe these thoughts and actions are part of my personality, but in truth, they’re just part of my illness.
None of this makes people with bipolar disorder scary, unpredictable, or volatile, but the oscillation between hypomanic grandiosity and depressive self-loathing does not make for a very healthy view of relationships. But I’m conscious of it, and I’m working on it. Just trying to be ~ super chill ~ clearly.