The Day They Told Me I Had A Mental Illness

woman living with bipolar
Photo credit: Jairo Alzate

I did it. After years of agonising about it, I finally came out about living with a mental illness called bipolar disorder. And now that I’ve opened that door, the flood of all the things I’ve wanted to share for so long is pouring through me.

I was diagnosed ten years ago by a doctor who finally, finally! listened to me. I’d always known there was something wrong with me. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome aka Yuppie Flu? Hypoglycaemia? Hypothyroidism? Season Affective Disorder? I just couldn’t figure out what it was. Nobody could. This was partly because I never told anyone about my manic episodes.

I mean, I really didn’t think the highs were a problem. The highs were exhilarating. They were wonderful (sometimes). Okay, they weren’t particularly good or healthy for me, but what did I care? At times I was bold, brave, daring, smart, wild, fun, amazing, I was the Lizard King, the Goddess, I could touch the stars, I could do anything, everything, I didn’t need sleep, I didn’t need help, I didn’t need to eat, I was superhuman and I was going to change the world. Who wouldn’t go along for that kind of ride?

Even the depression was perfectly normal for me. Being suicidal was normal for me. Darkness, my almost constant companion. I’d grown up with it. I wrote poems about it. Created art out of it. Lived it. Made it part of who I was. When I felt too dead or too dark inside, I’d cut myself just to feel alive. To feel a different kind of pain, something more acute, something outside of myself, something I could see, something I could recognise and identify, something that was starkly beautiful, something that gave me pure relief from the pain I felt within.

All that was normal for me. To be flung from one intense emotion to another was life as I knew it. And so I never brought it up.

What I did desperately seek help for, was the utter debilitation of the lows. When, for no reason, I suddenly didn’t have the energy to get out of bed, to brush my teeth, to hold my back up straight, or even to keep my eyelids open. When my head felt like it was stuffed full of cotton wool, when I couldn’t string a coherent thought together and a massive, heavy, cold, dark, grey hand dragged me down from within my own body.

‘If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, acts like a duck, and looks like a duck, I’m pretty sure it’s a duck.’ My doctor said one day after years of lengthy consultations.

‘You’re bipolar.’

The intense flush of relief to finally know what was wrong with me was almost instantly mired in the bizarre depths of such a deeply oppressive sentence. Crazy? Oh my God. Crazy. I was crazy. Officially. Fucking. Crazy. What? What? What?!

I didn’t like that fucking duck.

I’ll never forget how the earth fell out from under my feet on that day. How my blood went cold. How everything changed. Suddenly everything made sense. And then, just as suddenly, it didn’t.

My entire identity, unbeknownst to me up until that point, was wrapped up in my disease. I was fiercely creative. And fiercely emotional. ‘When I’m happy, I’m fucking happy. When I’m down, I’m fucking drowning.’ That’s how I used to describe myself to people. And of course, I would rather throw myself into a field of drawn swords than not to have the freedom to express myself creatively.

And suddenly it occurred to me that for all the years I had spent describing myself to people, I was actually describing the symptoms of a disease. And suddenly, I was lost. It turned out that in all my life, all I had actually been was a walking cluster of the symptoms of a mental illness.

And as if that wasn’t enough, when I went home and started researching bipolar, what little remained of the earth beneath me crumbled away when I discovered the link between bipolar and creativity. And now fucking what? Was I bipolar because I was creative? Or was I creative because I was bipolar?

‘Don’t become the disease.’ my doctor warned me. But what the hell in fuck did that mean? Don’t become the disease?! Okay, fine, I knew what he meant, but how was I supposed to unpack that? How was I supposed to separate myself from the disease? Was I supposed to build bridges between the two? Or watch them curdle and somehow try to bash them together into some kind of edible recipe? Or make everything one glorious, cohesive, peaceful, Zen-like one?

And how was I supposed to tell all this to my family? My boyfriend?

I’d never felt so found and so lost on one day.

But somehow, 10 years later, I’m still here. And somehow, not lost. These are my ever-so-slightly wiser words to the little messed up me on the day I found out I was bipolar …

My love, you might feel like the ground has cracked like a sci-fi movie and fallen out from under you, but you’re gonna find your ground again. Even better my love, you’re gonna build that ground. Your own ground. With a stronger, deeper, gentler sense of self than you’ve ever had before. You will finally come to know who you truly are, and not only will you eventually accept yourself for it, you will love yourself for it. And that’s something you’ve never, ever had.

You’re going to learn about your disease, you’re going to empower yourself from every frikkin’ angle you can find, you’re going to learn to fight when you need to, and you’re going to learn to yield when you need to. I’m not saying that you won’t still get messy. You will. You’ll still have dark days and wild times and anguish and despair, and blinding gloom and moments of watching yourself from outside yourself, and all kinds of crazy shit, but you’re gonna make it through all of it. Promise.

You are surrounded by incredible love and deep support, your family and friends love you for who you are, your boyfriend understands you better than you understand yourself and has become your biggest fan and what you now call your ‘strongest medicine’.

Today you’re living your dreams, you’ve found your voice, your tribe, your home, your true creativity … you no longer question whether you’re bipolar because you’re creative or whether you’re creative because you’re bipolar or even whether you’re some kind of ‘walking cluster of the symptoms of a mental illness’. Because it doesn’t matter anymore.

Because you just are.

Because you’re strong.

Because you’re brave.

Because you’re beautiful.

You just happen to be bipolar.

Read next: Don’t Tell Them You’re Crazy. Oops. I Just Did.