November 1, 2016

Lifting the Stigma: We’re all just Learning to Deal with the Ups & Downs of Life.


I once saw a plaque in someone’s office that read: “If you met my family, you’d understand.”

And it’s true.

You’d know why I’m so comfortable being naked—my mom walks around the house naked.

You’d know why I’m so outspoken—hang out with my dad in his man cave for an hour.

You’d know why I love being active and playing sports—my Grandpa Billy was known for his hand-eye coordination and my mom, at 62, swims daily. (While she warms up, I have to sprint in fins to barely keep up.)

You’d know why I’m so hard-working—my 97-year-old grandma still goes to the office to do the books.

You’d know why I’m a bit of a clean freak—my mom showers multiple times a day and is constantly organizing and cleaning.

You’d know why I spill food all over myself—my dad stains every shirt he owns.

You’d know why I’m a bit crazy and so go-go-go.


When I was 20, I anxiously waited for the day I’d discover I was schizophrenic.

My sister was bipolar.

Another sister struggled with depression.

My great aunt committed suicide.

My dad struggled with depression in his 20s and 30s.

One distant cousin was bipolar and experimenting with cross-dressing.

My maternal grandma was (pretty much) insane—narcissistic.

Mental illness was part of my genetic makeup. It was always part of my story, on the forefront of my mind, wondering when a doctor would diagnose the loud, screaming voices in my head as symptomatic of schizophrenia.

We all experience emotional ups and downs—it’s how the brain works. Bursts of feel-good hormones, followed by a lull. But some more than others are prone to more drastic ebbs and flows. Some are able to control them, while others can’t (without the aid of medication).

It was on me to learn how to manage my emotional stability—just like everyone must.

My sophomore year in college I struggled to grapple with my ending soccer career and unfulfilling relationships with girlfriends. I felt lost. I spent many nights crying myself to sleep, unsure how to lift myself from the darkness that felt all-encompassing. And then, two years later, my sister suddenly died, and I was forcefully tossed into emotional turmoil.

What most people spend their late 20s and early 30s figuring out, I was doing at 22. I had no choice. Those voices I heard years before went into overdrive. They were loud, ricocheting between my ears, imprisoned, shouting nonsense at me, almost discernible, yet not. I just knew the tone was unsettling. I’d cover my ears, trying to block them out. Sometimes it worked, most often I’d have to wait ’til they’d vanish.

It’s happening, I’d tell myself: I’m going crazy.

But I wasn’t.

My mind was just on overdrive, and I hadn’t yet learned how to manage my tendency to function at a million miles an hour. Two years after my sister’s death, I finally gave in and got on Prozac. The drug gave me the boost I needed to lift me above water, to let me breathe; it also allowed me the clarity of mind to train myself how to stay grounded. I took it for two years, until I didn’t need it anymore.

I remember a Sunday evening at my parents’ on the lake, family friends over for a barbecue, where my mom makes enough food for 100 with 20 present. I couldn’t stop laughing. Everything was amazing to me, everything felt amazing, everything buzzed. My cheeks felt sore from smiling. My dad shook his head, yelling, “What the hell is wrong with you?!”

It’s happened, I could tell he was thinking: She’s gone insane.

I was high on Prozac (which at the time I didn’t realize). But to him, I was bipolar. I was up that day and then the next would be down. To him, being bipolar and not controlling my ebbs and flows was synonymous with (potentially) another dead daughter. His pleas for me to, “Shut up! Quiet down!” was his way to avoid such heartache before it was too late.

These days, I know how to control that “loudness in my head” as I once described it to a therapist. I use physical activity to calm myself and focus. Surf and climb and bike and skate and throw balls and swim. I do all that so I can stop for a moment to then write and socialize.

There’s different degrees of mental illness, and we all sit somewhere on the spectrum. No one is exempt. Some struggle more intensely—the varying degrees dictate the amount of distress and disruption it can cause if unmanaged. So because we’re all dancing the same dance, it’s important to mitigate the shame associated with it, to talk about it, to feel connected instead of misunderstood.

I hated when my dad would associate me with being bipolar after Miya’s death. “I’m not insane!” I wanted to scream at him in adolescent protest.

To me, it was okay my sister was bipolar; there was nothing wrong with her, she wasn’t “sick.” And when others judged her for being the way she was, blamed that as the reason she killed herself, I felt enraged with misunderstanding.

But if I was bipolar, that was something to fear. That was wrong.

But what if I was? Who cares?

I’d tackle that challenge like I do anything else. I’d do it for me, I’d do it for my grieving parents, and I’d do it for every person who has ever privately messaged me, thanking me for writing about topics that are considered shameful and often undiscussed. There’s no shame in being human.

There’s no shame in struggle, because without it, we wouldn’t recognize and know how to celebrate joy.




Author: Sabrina Must

Photos: Author’s Own

Editor: Travis May

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