If there’s anything neurotypicals don’t understand about mental illness (and yeah, there’s a lot), it’s how crazies like me often feel the need to put labels on our symptoms, to research our life experiences, to find a name for whatever it is that makes our experiences, our perspectives, our very personalities so different than that of normal people. Why, they ask me, do I have to put a name on it? What really is normal, anyway? We’re all a little crazy! I’m sooo OCD about organizing my bookshelf. Have you tried yoga?
Well, first of all, now that I have the appropriate label, I don’t have to call neurotypicals normal people anymore. Because, no, I am not abnormal. I am atypical. Everyone has moods, and some of us may be moodier than others, but the average person does not have bipolar disorder. A year ago, I didn’t know what was wrong with me, just that sometimes I cried every day and experienced so much deadening emotional pain that I couldn’t get out of bed without tremendous effort for weeks at a time. But sometimes I was fine. More than fine, in fact. Sometimes, I would soar upwards out of a depressive episode with so much momentum it felt briefly like when I was a kid, flying so high on a park swing that I just might lift off and enter the earth’s orbit. This, I have since learned, is called hypomania. It lasts for a few days, and then I have drifted too far into space and am suddenly swallowed by a black hole. It’s not a black hole, of course; no one could ever possibly travel that far in a lifetime (let alone in a weekend). But the enormous darkness and gravity of the depression that follows a hypomanic episode certainly makes it feel that way.
That’s quite the extended metaphor, so now that I have a more concise term for it, I call my experiences bipolar disorder, type two. This, to me, means that what I go through is real. I’m not just making this up in my head because I’m a lazy, overdramatic hypochondriac who craves attention, and has no friends, and should totally just go die.
I am a person with an illness. I have a mental illness. I am mentally ill. Do you see how I can say the same thing so many different times, and they can all mean different things?”
Anyway, just as I’ve chosen to embrace the labels “bipolar” and “mentally ill,” so, too, have I decided to take medication. But do I really want to rely on pharmaceuticals?
In a perfect world, no. I don’t enjoy choking down horse pills. I don’t like getting headaches when I miss a dose, I hate paying for prescriptions, and it’s inconvenient, given my tight schedule, that my medications make me drowsy. But if this sounds like a terrible fate, you’ve probably never had your life disrupted by an episode of severe depression.
This month, as I was halfway through writing this piece, my psychiatrist took a vacation. This happened to be the same week I ran out of refills on my antidepressant medication. In the four days I didn’t have access to my medication, I became completely nonfunctional. I experienced crying fits, panic attacks, headaches, exhaustion so extreme that I slept until 6 pm on a school day, weakness, nausea, vomiting, disorientation, and a host of other symptoms.
My brain chemistry is not something that can be treated with yoga, mindfulness, or therapy alone. I need my medications. To suggest otherwise is one of the most insulting things a person can say to me. This is not to say that pharmaceuticals are for everyone, or that there are no other options for treating mental illness. I would never assume that what works for me is what works for everyone. Likewise, I ask this: Don’t assume that those of us who use medications are just a bunch of mindless “Big Pharma” sycophants. We’re doing the best we can.