I have lived around schizophrenia. I have been close to someone who experienced their first manic episode and was later diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1. I have tiptoed around the doorway of depression. I have dealt off and on with anxiety.
And as a young girl, for more than a decade, I struggled behind closed doors with an eating disorder.
Mental illness is not something foreign to me, yet I do not feel particularly special in this regard. I know I am not the only one who has lived a life walking near, or hand-in-hand with, mental illness.
The problem is that I only know I’m not the only one because it takes my opening up to someone for them to say, “Wow, I’ve never told anyone outside of my family, but…me too.”
Our conversations around mental illness are still nearly non-existent.
We can now speak of depression and anxiety. In a conversation with a friend the other day, we joked that depression and anxiety are like the cool kids in the mental health cafeteria. Everyone can relate to tiptoeing around the doorways of depression and anxiety, even if they have no clue what it is like to live in those rooms.
But what about believing you are God during a manic episode?
What about looking in the mirror and not being able to recognize who you are during periods of schizophrenia?
What about hearing voices during psychosis?
I cannot speak to these experiences because I have personally not been through them. A Buddhist teacher of mine says that knowledge turns to wisdom when it moves from our head to our heart—we need the real life experience.
I do, however, believe that we all exist merely on a spectrum of realities. I identify with some of the personality traits associated with bipolar disorder: intense emotions, stubborn likes and dislikes, a creative mind and the belief I can accomplish anything.
I have lain awake many nights wondering, “What if?”
What if I wake up tomorrow and my mind as I know it, is gone?
Physical illness feels different. If I was diagnosed with cancer, I would still be Annabelle, just with cancer.
But if my mind was hijacked, particularly in a way that no one really talks about? I have no idea how I would begin again.
We need to speak about these illnesses so they are no longer wrapped in fear. We need to speak about them so that those experiencing them don’t feel as if their entire sense of self is destroyed. We need to reject our fear-based culture and celebrate those with mental illness, like many indigenous cultures do. They see those who experience hallucinations and distorted perceptions as messengers.
When we live in fear, our bodies begin to bathe in the stress hormone, cortisol, and our ability to be compassionate is thwarted. It’s no wonder that as a stressed-out culture, we struggle to accept those who, from time to time, experience different perceptions of reality.
It’s no wonder that I know people who have experienced Bipolar Type 1 and have only told two people outside of their family.
It’s no wonder that I know people who hide from their past experiences of psychosis.
It’s no wonder that the stigma around eating disorders runs so deep that in reading this post, some friends of mine will find out for the first time that I was there too.
These topics are uncomfortable to talk about because we have swept them under the rug for decades and piled shame on top of them.
For those who have experienced mental illness, I highly encourage you to speak up. Your stories can open the doorway for others to speak up—we never know what weight others are carrying on their shoulders.
And more importantly, for those currently suffering—know that it can get better. Those of us who have suffered can still go on to be innovators, CEOs, renowned artists, and well-adjusted people in secure relationships, with healthy, happy families.
Mental illness does not have to define you. You can, and will, thrive beyond it.
Author: Annabelle Blythe
Image: Courtesy of author
Editor: Nicole Cameron