There. I said it.
The word that I have been afraid of for so long. That I thought if I said it, I was giving it life. Making it real.
But guess what? It’s real whether I say it or not.
The road of mental illness is one that I’ve been traveling for about 15 years. Long. Treacherous. Unforgiving. I wanted to turn around, or find another route. But no. I am stuck on this one indefinitely and I don’t have a choice.
Somewhere along the way, I got lost. Everything I was, or thought I was, slowly began to disappear. I desperately wanted her back. She was easier. Happier. Safer. Who was I supposed to be without her?
But just as the last pieces of my old self dropped away, I started finding these new pieces. Pieces that I needed to put together to build this new person. This new person scared me. She was a stranger. She was reckless. She was complicated. But she was me, so I’d better get used to her.
The truth was, she was me all along. She had just been hidden behind this other version of myself, the one who I wanted to be. The one who I wanted the world to see. So when this outer shell began to crumble, the real me appeared. Whether I wanted her to or not.
Lots of people say that their mental illness doesn’t define them. That they are so much more than that. And they’re right. But at the same time, we have to own it. Accept it. Allow it to breathe and see the world rather than hiding it away.
It took me a long time to accept that I was struggling with mental illness. Depression. Anxiety. Whatever label I was given at the time. But once my psychiatrist dug deep and I was completely honest about my experiences, I was given my real and final diagnosis. The one that I deserved all along but refused to acknowledge. I was, I am, bipolar. And accepting that has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
The word caught in my throat, as if my body was trying to hold it in. But it needed to be released. Otherwise it would continue to eat away at me, as it had been doing for so many years.
Mental illness alone has so many negative connotations. But bipolar? That’s a whole other beast. One that is supposed to be caged. After all, its behavior is unpredictable. One minute, it is docile and sedated. The next, it is menacing and ferocious. You never know which side you’re going to be confronted with, yet somehow, you have to tame it. Train it, clean it up, and make it presentable.
Sounds easy, right? Imagine doing it every day. Sometimes every hour.
I tried to pretend that it didn’t even exist. Locking it away and willing it to disappear. But the funny thing about mental illness is that it never goes away. Not really. Not forever. And eventually, it became harder and harder to hide. So I made the decision to stop lying to myself. This is my reality and I can no longer be ashamed.
Sometimes, I’m able to be, or at least pretend to be, a normally functioning human being. Whatever that is, anyway. But other times, I am unable to be a part of the land of the living. I’m as close to dead as someone can be while still being conscious.
And then there’s the side of me that is volatile and raging. Where I’m not even present in my own body. Where I feel like I no longer have control of my actions. That is the scary side. At least Ashlie the Vegetable can’t hurt anyone. Ashlie the Monster is something else entirely.
But accepting these sides of me has made treatment possible. And treatment is absolutely crucial.
And just because I accept it doesn’t mean that I am going to let it overcome me.
I’m not asking for a miracle, here. I know that I will never be society’s definition of normal. But I think I can be okay. Or at least try to be. I owe that to my family. To myself.
Because even though I’m bipolar, I am still Ashlie. And she deserves to be a part of the world. She deserves to be happy.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Too many people are unable to speak out and share their stories because of the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Often referred to as an “invisible illness”, those battling it usually blend in with everyone else. We suffer in silence… out of fear of judgment, of being misunderstood. But mental illness is no different than a physical condition that the world can see. It is beyond our control. It is an ongoing struggle. It is painful and draining.
In an effort to break the stigma, awareness and education have to happen. Acceptance and support have to happen. There are lots of things that you can do to help, but the easiest and most important is to show those with mental illness that you care. That you believe in their fight and want to be a part of it. Kindness and love go a long way, so if you can’t help in other ways, make your words and actions count. Build relationships and show support. Help others gain the confidence to share their truth. Let them know that they are safe with you. Just knowing that I have a strong support system has impacted me beyond words. I could not be more grateful for the friends and family who want to learn about what I go through and who are willing to help when I’m struggling. But not everyone is so lucky.
If you would like to find out more about bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses or learn about how to get involved, the National Alliance of Mental Illness is a great place to start.