For people who have never experienced depression or been close to someone who has, it's hard to understand. How can someone just lie in bed and not have the will to get up? It's simple logic: You need to have a roof over your head, you need to work to do that, you have to get up and go to work. Right? Wrong. For people who suffer from depression, sometimes the simplest little thing, like the act of getting out of bed to go into the living room, is as impossible as being able to fly. The world is just too much to handle. I used to be someone who didn't understand depression. I used to think that people just needed to get over their mental illness. That was until my best friend was diagnosed as bipolar.
I remember the look in her eyes when she told me, "Well, I am officially diagnosed as bipolar." She had been diagnosed with depression since high school, but to any outsider, you would never know. Her quirky, bubbly personality is infectious, and it's hard to imagine her being depressed, let alone, bipolar. I could tell that she was struggling to wrap her mind around the stigma of being bipolar -- isn't that just another way of saying bat shit crazy? It was incredible to see that someone who was diagnosed as bipolar carried the preconceptions and stigma that surrounds this illness.
Her grappling with bipolar was only one part of this story. There was of course my own preconceptions regarding it as well. After much research and spending time with her after the diagnosis, I was able to realize something very significant: She was not a crazy person (albeit she would have episodes of absolute craziness), and she wasn't a "bipolar person." She was her and always would be. I can equate this to when I got married. All of a sudden, I had a new name, and new "status" (check box married), but I was still the same core person, nothing had changed, save the label. This is probably the most important concept to realize if you have friend or loved one that is diagnosed with mental illness. Diagnosis does not change who they are. They are still the same person that you know and love, just with a new label, a new way to identify what they are experiencing.
This isn't to say that knowing and implementing the concept above makes things any easier. When you are caught in a manic or depressive episode with this person, logic falls out the door. You forget that the person that you know and love is there and just see this animal that has risen from their being. It's hard to see. It tears at your heart, and all you want to do is scream and tell them to snap out of it -- this isn't YOU! But you can't. And doing that is probably one of the worst things you can do. You want to do something, anything to help them and take away the pain, to erase the crazy, but you can't. The best thing you can do is stay stable, tell them you love them and ride the storm.
That was my stigma and what I dealt with upon her diagnosis. Back to her own stigma. Despite my own preconceptions about what bipolar meant, I could see what it meant to her in that moment. I remember saying, "Well, we don't have to call it bipolar. We can call it something else. Say, a 'polar bear moment.'" We both laughed and said, "If you're gonna be a bear..." This stems from a long standing joke, that if you are going to be a bear, you should be a grizzly. It was a simple moment, but probably for both of us, the first positive step in a very, very long journey.
Throughout her journey after being diagnosed as bipolar, we continued to refer to it as the polar bear. She would say, "I'm having a polar bear day/week." Which would be a cue for me to watch her. We also implemented the U.S. Government terror alert strategy to rate the severity of her episode. "I'm in terror alert yellow this week," she would tell me. "Okay, let me know if it goes orange." It was amazing to see how much our language changed over time. What used to be, "Are you okay?" became, "How safe do you feel?" or, "Are you safe tonight?" Despite her best efforts, with changes in medications, financial stresses, my friend was in the hospital about three times in the period of a year and half.
The last time was the most tragic for me. It was a week after my wedding. She called and said that she needed to check herself into the hospital. I sat with her in the intake room at the hospital and was taken aback by her response when they asked her how long she had been having suicidal thoughts, "A few months." A few months?! I thought this was something within the last week. I felt heartbroken, my best friend had been lying to me for the past three months about how she was doing. Both of us had always been completely honest and open with one another -- I felt betrayed that this had happened. I also felt stupid -- how did I not see the signs? How did I miss the cues? Mad at myself, mad at her, I fought to keep these emotions at bay, because, after all, she was checking herself into the hospital. I reminded myself that this wasn't about me, it was about her.
Ultimately, this last hospital trip resulted in the decision to move her back to her hometown to live with her father. A place where she wouldn't feel the stress and burden of rent and other financial responsibilities. To this day, I have never expressed to her my feelings that day I took her to the hospital. I guess because I know without asking the reason she did it, and it breaks my heart. It was not a coincidence that it happened immediately following my wedding. I was absorbed in that event, too absorbed to see what were obvious signs, that everyone else saw without hesitation. And she was being selfless to ruin a huge day in my life and hid what was going on. Between her hiding and my distraction, what is there really to talk about?
I am so happy to say that now in her hometown, my friend is doing extremely well. I miss her immensely and have yet to find a person that could even come close to replacing her. There is a good chance she will stay in her hometown forever, and I can't say that I am happy about that, but I am okay with it and happy for her. To know that she is still living is a gift. To know that she is still living, loving life and making it on her own, overflows my heart with happiness. I would rather have her a million miles away and happy and healthy, then be selfish enough to keep her right by my side. I realize the sacrifices and changes she has had to make in order to be happy, and this is my very small part in all of that.
I hope that this blog post can bring hope to those of you whole have loved ones that are battling mental illness -- do not ever give up on them. Do not give up hope. Do not stop fighting and do not let them stop fighting. I hope that this blog post brings awareness to the stigmas that people with mental illness face and helps to shed them. The stigma that society holds, only works against the recovery of those working to heal. And lastly, to those suffering from mental illness, I hope you read this and realize how many people love and support you. While it might be hard to see, there is an end, and it is not one of ending your life. Your loved ones, your family, your friends, your community they all care. Don't ever give up.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.