My Badge of Honor

I wear my mental illness like a Badge of Honor. It means I am different… I live a challenged life… I am a survivor. I have Bipolar Disorder and I am not ashamed to admit it. I have had it my whole life even though I was not diagnosed until age 23. It defines who I am. It was there to shape and mold me through my traumatic childhood, the time of life when everyone is struggling to discover who they are and what they want to do with their life. It has brought me to my lowest points in life but it has also fueled my best moments. It is a part of me like an extra arm sticking out of my chest. It is there even though most people choose to ignore it. It is not something we talk about in polite society. My parents taught me that our private lives – family matters, personal health, family drama – stay at home. One does not air one’s dirty laundry for everyone to see. That type of thinking made me bury my disease deep inside me. But you know what? I could only do that for so long before it started leaking out all over the place, staining every facet of my life life. The more I denied it, the more I tried to hide it, the more powerful the disease became until finally I hit a Rock Bottom. I can’t adequately describe what this looks like. It is different for every person because each of us follows a different path to reach it. It is not a happy place. For me, it was dark and lonely because by the time I reached it, I had alienated everyone who cared about me. I pushed people away with a vengeance. I crawled through life. I dragged my sorry butt from school to work to home and repeat. My grades suffered. My friends hated me. My boyfriend left me. My employer was collecting a pretty stack of warnings against me. And I hated myself – every night I cried myself to sleep. When a bipolar person is depressed, we know what failures we are. We know every detail of what we are doing wrong. We could write a dissertation on what we are doing wrong in our lives… But we have no control. We feel helpless against the wall we have built around ourselves, a wall we built one brick at a time until it is so high we can’t reach the top, we can’t see the sun anymore. When the control freak has lost complete control, that is when Rock Bottom welcomes us with open arms.

I am one of the lucky ones. My doctors were wonderful and the medications worked right away. The medications are not a cure though. I will live with this disease for the rest of my life – trust me, it reminds me every now and then that I am not always in control. The medications do not make the voices go away. They do not fix the problem in my brain. But they do slow everything down inside my head to a manageable speed. The impulsive voices and urges that try to rule my life have been slowed down for the reasonable side of my mind to catch up. My reasonable mind has the time it needs to counter the impulsiveness, the reckless abandon that wants to control me. The medications allow me to be the master of my our ship instead of holding on for dear life most of the time. I spent two years in talk therapy learning to accept myself as I am and how to regain control of my mind. Therapy gave me the tools to use against my mind’s alter ego. Cognitive-behavioral therapy taught me where my thinking was flawed and what to do against it. I was able to change the way I think to realize a New Normal for myself. It was a liberating experience! Instead of constantly playing the victim, I was finally in control. The first thing I did to celebrate this hard-won freedom was to kick out of my life everyone who tried to push me back into my old role. Anyone who continued to undermine the therapeutic process I was in was not worth having in my life. For me, that meant discarding my parents. They didn’t get it and they never would. They saw my disease as a sign of my weakness. They shed all responsibility for me when I was sick. They abandoned me when I arrived at Rock Bottom. They wanted nothing to do with me when I was at my worse. They lied to everyone about where I disappeared to when I needed to be hospitalized. I became a pariah in my own family. I could not and would not assume that role they assigned me. The day I decided to eliminate them from my life I felt as though I lost 200 pounds, like the mythical pink elephant in the room floated out the window. I was free to live my life the way I needed to. I was free to do the things I needed to do to be healthier. We cannot allow others to predetermine our fates. And we cannot blame them for it either. THE BOTTOM LINE IS THAT WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR OURSELVES.

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