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I was eighteen, in a living room with my friends at a party. There was strange art on the walls, a boy playing an old piano, bizarre knick-knacks and old books perched on giant bookshelves. I was sitting on the floor, drinking very cheap cask wine.
I had felt like an outcast in my later years of high school. But I had, at least for the last little while, finally felt as though I belonged somewhere, flitting around with misfits who were just as eccentric as I was.
But I began to notice things out of the ordinary. Jagged stares that quickly avoided my eye contact.
Whispers. A distance.
So I grew uneasy, uncomfortable.
So uncomfortable that I felt the need to get drunk as quickly as possible.
To the point that all I remember is four policeman, the inside of an ambulance, and waking up the next morning in the emergency department with a homeless man leering over me.
If I were considered “normal”, I would have just been put to bed.
This may sound like a story of madness.
And really, it is.
The madness with which people view madness.
At some point during that party, it emerged that I had been previously diagnosed with a mental illness. Everything converged quite rapidly. My every action confirmed the rumours, their crude understanding of mental illness, and their unsubstantiated suspicions of my sanity. I was driven to a point of rational and justifiable self-consciousness and awkwardness.
The drunker I became, the more they thought I was displaying who I truly was. Laughing at a joke or revealing my quirks meant I was crazy.
“I feel sad,” sounded depressive.
“They’re talking about me,” sounded psychotic.
Knocking over glasses, attempting to seduce everyone at the party, and yelling at an ex-boyfriend positioned me differently than someone else who had done similar things a few weeks before.
In reality, just like anyone (mentally ill or not) who reaches a 0.27 blood alcohol level, I was simply just an awful party guest.
The next day, there was little mention of the fact that “Bronte was insanely fucking drunk.”
Instead, my reputation was adorned on one newly-crowned fact: Bronte was fucking insane.
Many times in my life I have been unreasonably or prematurely judged based on people’s misunderstandings about mental health. I have been treated with fear, condescension, exaggerated kindness, rudeness, excitement, interest, and malevolence.
Most know that to talk about mental health in a simple fashion is complicated; an issue that in and of itself contributes to stigma. In one broad brushstroke, a mental illness is a disorder originating in the mind that impairs one’s thoughts, feelings, behaviours and biology. The wider spectrum of mental health is characterised by polychromatic shades and blurred edges. Understanding mental health requires grasping nuances that are rapidly reshaping.
When I was seventeen I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Roughly, bipolar is a mood disorder characterised by episodes of extreme depression and intense elevation (called mania). When I have been depressed I have been incredibly lethargic, have had very slow and sombre thoughts, regarded my life as futile, and lost desire and interest in everything – including getting better. When I have been manic I have been sharply energetic, had wild plans and desires, had rapid thoughts, felt glee and excitement and anger, and had an itching inability to stop talking.
At both extremes, I have had impaired concentration, reduced decision-making abilities, hindered routines, and a grave disconnection from the world.
I had a very intimate group of friends in high school. We spent most of our time together laughing and indulging in typical (but retrospectively rather terrifying) teenage rebellion. I told them immediately when I was diagnosed with bipolar. It provoked a slow, yet distinct, act of them drifting away. It was painful to know that during an intensely difficult time they didn’t want to know me.
This was my first experience of stigma.
Upon reflection, I suppose the only thing I ever had in common with them was extravagant drug use.
Luckily, now that I have ongoing treatment and have made certain lifestyle changes, my bipolar is managed to a point of mood stability. But, the natural fluctuations of my mood mean that I have always had periods of wellness even without intervention. Consequently, there has never been a reason to use my bipolar as a lens to frame all my gestures, opinions, emotions, words, faux pas, mistakes and bad decisions.
However, like anyone with bipolar, many of my healthy traits are sometimes taken as proof of a dire illness. When I am healthy I have a naturally expressive demeanour, an inability to sit still, a penchant for depth and darkness, and a colourful imagination. I have natural tendencies toward black humour, sensitivity and outrageous pursuits.
It is interesting for me to conceptualise where my mental illness ends and where “I begin”, if such a distinction is possible at all. In my everyday life I tend to subscribe to the view that unless certain aspects of myself are impairing my quality of life, there is no reason to diagnose it.
A few years ago, I became enraptured with the new ideas and perspectives that university introduced. People subjected me to far more worry than encouragement. It was as though my excitement and drive and sparkling periods of joy were not legitimate, but rather early symptoms of a creeping manic episode.
To be fair, learning how to judge when I am beginning to get unwell is something that has taken a long time. Even people I am close to still find it difficult on occasion. Regardless, my illness shouldn’t be at the forefront of people’s minds.
I’ve told many people about my illness. A boyfriend at the beginning of a relationship said, “My ex-girlfriend had bipolar. She pulled a kitchen knife on me and took me to court.” A recent friend told me, “My cousin had bipolar. He took his own life.” An acquaintance at a dinner casually stated, “Someone from high school had bipolar. She was a bitch.” A person I’d sat next to in a lecture for a few months actually declared, “That mass murderer had that.”
In telling these new people in my life about my illness, there was a resounding air that they understood who I am.
I am typically willing to insouciantly discuss my illness if the occasion arises. However, I’ve learnt that telling people early on that I have bipolar is not always the best way to confront or overturn stigma. In social situations, I sometimes tend to wait until people get to know me. Now people say things like, “But Bronte, you’re practically normal,” and, “But Bronte, you don’t act crazy.”
In essence, a diagnosis of bipolar is very broad. Some experiences with bipolar are severely impairing and lifelong, elaborating and tangling into every corner of life. Some people have quite mild undulations and fluctuations of mood. I suppose I’m somewhere in between. The list of symptoms is embodied in different formations across wildly varied people.
(And just a quick note: despite the salient cultural discourse on it, the idea that people with bipolar are violent is barely worth considering.)
There is an illusion that people with the same diagnosis are by default similar people. I met a younger girl with bipolar in group therapy when I was twenty. She immediately latched onto me after the session. “We have so much in common!” she squealed. Lying on the grass in the park we talked, and I gave this sixteen-year-old far too many cigarettes. We divulged our experiences with our illnesses, but it quickly appeared that, although we both had bipolar, the course and nature of our shared diagnosis was in contrast. Having a mental illness was really the only thing we had in common. She didn’t like modern art, or zombies, or Plath, or breeding silkworms, or poker, or much else I enjoyed at the time.
A common discourse that permeates cutting-edge psychiatry that I myself have adopted is that a diagnosis is a loose framework with which one can be compared with people who share some similar experiences in order to have the best general direction for treatment and management.
As a mental health advocate, I often intricately elaborate on my experiences with my mental illness in public contexts. Being open is a profound, exciting, humbling, vulnerable and sometimes daunting experience. Consequently, I have acquired a taste of what it is like to have a mental illness that is a very visible, prominent fixture of my reputation.
Perusing the news, I have wondered how public figures who have known mental health issues have coped socially. It is hard to imagine the details of my mental health splashed across tabloid covers, or discussed at length over dinner by a family I have not met, or whispered about by old classmates. How would Ian Thorpe be at a high school reunion, or Stephen Fry present himself at a cocktail party? Or what would it have been like to have been Charlotte Dawson in a green room intimately surrounded by colleagues, or Philip Seymour Hoffman at a family lunch? I wonder what particular social dance was danced.
I know that as I have danced my own dance, people have grasped at a miscellany of ideas to understand me.
I expect that some people will miss the essence of this article. And then at some point, someone who read this article will meet someone with bipolar.
And at that point, they will say, “I read an article once by someone with bipolar. She was fucking horrible.”
(Ed’s note – check out Bronte @ Young Minds 13 below…)
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