If you know me personally, would you have guessed I had a mental illness? You probably thought I was a little different or eccentric, but really, would you have guessed it? It was a heck of a shock to me that April in 2005 when I received the news that I had Bipolar Disorder Type 1. It was pretty apparent to others at that particular time in my life as I was extremely ill, however prior to that time, not one family member, friend or any of the many doctors I had seen over the years had seen any sign of mental illness.
So in the short 7 years that I have had this diagnosis, I have certainly experienced stigma. Below are just a few examples. I am most certainly not looking for pity here, my goal is to provide examples so you don’t make some of the unintentionally hurtful mistakes others have. I truly forgive those that are so uncomfortable with mental illness that they have responded so poorly. It is lack of knowledge that has caused this behaviour and my hope and prayer is that the current campaigns to End Stigma will further educate people. To illustrate my point, let me start with myself.
In an educational session I was participating in last week, I realized that I have been keeping this illness a secret as I was feeling ashamed of having Bipolar Disorder. I needed to give my head a shake. I’m ashamed of something that is totally out of my control? Would I be ashamed if I had diabetes? If I had epilepsy? If I had hyperthyroidism? You get my point here. This is a medical condition, it is passed on genetically and I was born with it. It may look ridiculous that I am saying all of this while writing under a pseudonym, but unfortunately, this information could negatively affect my career so that is my impetus for disclosing my illness this way. Bottom line, I am no longer living in shame. My suggestion is you respect a friends’ privacy if they have a mental illness, but there certainly is no reason to feel ashamed of it.
One other point to add here, I make a very big distinction for myself and you’ll note I always state “I have Bipolar Disorder”. In other words I do not say “I am Bipolar”. This is important as I am NOT my illness and a great way to support a friend with a mental illness is to point this out to them. I am Amelia Mims, not Bipolar Disorder which is just one of the many very interesting aspects of this valuable, supported, well-loved person.
Friends lost that stigmatized:
One friend would ask me to babysit and then be visibly uncomfortable leaving her child alone with me. While visibly uncomfortable leaving me alone with her 2 year old, she would ask why I hadn’t attended parties she had thrown…parties for which I had never received an invite. She would even go so far as confirm I was actually taking my meds. Obviously in her mind, I was untrustworthy, unfit for her child and her social circles. Needless to say, we are no longer friends. My prayers are with her and her son that she will find compassion for those she meets with a mental illness.
Another friend had told me in great detail how disgusted she was with her mother-in-law who has Bipolar Disorder. Now, she had said most of this prior to my diagnosis, but having so much detail about her real views on this issue, it was just impossible for me to continue our friendship, especially when I saw her visceral reaction of disgust to the news of my diagnosis. I sadly regret I have lost touch with this friend as she was so special in every other way, and I truly hope the current campaigns to End Stigma have spoken to her.
Local business stigma:
A local business owner would literally run away from me when I entered their local Café (needless to say I don’t shop there any more). Now granted, this business owner had seen me ill, but he had also seen me well for over 1 year prior to that. Unforgiven for 1 off-day in this man’s presence when clearly there was something going very wrong for me? I tried to shop in that Café for over 2 years after the “incident” of unwellness and show this man that I was ok and actually a really good customer. He didn’t “get it”, continued to run away, and I discovered an even better Café just up the street.
Co Worker Stigma
I had a co-worker tell me “You chose a good time to be sick because it is really stressful at work right now.” I chose to get sick? Sheesh, I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy and I most certainly don’t “choose” to get depressed to the point that I can barely go out, am haunted with negative thoughts the depression is so severe and can’t focus on anything. Needless to say, I’ve learned a valuable lesson about disclosing at work. Admittedly, I’m still a little worried about what the consequences will be for disclosing to this one ‘friend’ at work.
Another co-worker disclosed compassionately that her mother had Bipolar Disorder. After sharing that I did as well, she advised that she couldn’t stand her mother for her illness, she turned red in the face and walked away from me. She was very friendly afterwards, but would not stand close to me or get onto an elevator with me. Thankfully, she is no longer with the company. Just so everyone knows, mental illness isn`t contagious so it`s truly safe to get onto the elevator with me.
I’ve tried to accept all of this gracefully, but deep down inside each one did hurt at the time. It`s all served to make me stronger and all of these people are long forgiven. They are the ones with the issues, not me. That’s why I’m sharing this. Much like we accept cultural and gender differences, we need to accept those with mental illnesses. Mental Illness doesn`t make one bad, just different and isn`t that what makes us Canada?
Follow me on Twitter @amelia_mims
In the spring of 2005, at 32-years-old, I faced my absolute worst fear and received a diagnosis of “high functioning” bipolar disorder type I, while experiencing a serious psychotic break. Despite a dramatic and traumatic hospital submission to a psychiatric crisis ward, I could not believe the news I had received. Prior to this, I had tortured my parents with my outlandish behaviour off and on for years.
Not being diagnosed until I was 32 came at a steep price of failed relationships, walking out of my loving parents’ home at 17-years-old, and barely even speaking with my family for several years after. Within three months of leaving home, I lost 80 pounds, dropped out of high school, and was trying to subsist on a minimum wage job, thinking there was nothing really wrong with me. I blamed my parents, accused them of emotional abuse, and took all of my angst, agitation, and frustration out on them. My mother and father were deeply wounded by my actions, and my mother would cry for days in my absence. I had little patience or use for my younger sister, and this hurt her deeply, as she had always looked up to me. My sister felt protective of my parents, as they were so hurt by me, and eventually she became very angry with me. My father was at a loss as to how to get me to come home, and how to ease his own, my mother’s, and my sister’s suffering. They just saw their generally loving and obedient daughter behaving in ways that were totally out of character, and chalked it up to normal teenage angst. I simply could not see the problem was inside of me, and truly believed my family was the cause of my emotional torture. What was working against me was the fact I was “high functioning;” I was able to hide my emotional outbursts from everyone but my parents, whom I saw as the root of all my issues.
As a young girl, my mother described me as a “sensitive child” who was emotional, my grandmother claimed I was prone to “histrionics,” and doctors claimed I was a hypochondriac. Upon reaching puberty, I was able to maintain relative stability, so my parents really never saw a problem. When I was 13, things changed quickly. I began to rebel, became confrontational and argumentative, and increasingly blamed my parents for the discomfort I was unable to articulate other than through physical symptoms such as upset stomachs, migraines, and muscular tension.
Fast forward to 2005: I had separated from my husband (now blaming him for my angst, instead of my parents), moved homes, changed jobs, and was unknowingly becoming psychotic from a manic episode induced by both a prescription of antidepressants and the huge amount of stress brought on by so much change in my life. My parents and family doctor began to realize something was seriously wrong, but it was too late. Within days of their realization, I was fired from my job, and then walked into a local coffee shop and proceeded to start screaming nonsense until the police were called. My recollection is spotty due to the nature of psychosis, but I do recall the police arriving, trying to restrain me, and me fighting them with all my might. But I’d lost considerable weight and was no match for the officers. I was handcuffed and taken to my local hospital, screaming the entire trip. The next time my parents saw me, I was strapped to a gurney in straitjacket, drooling from the large doses of Haldol (Haloperidol) I was injected with to try and break the psychotic episode. I will never forget the look on my parents’ faces when they walked into that locked room to see me in such a state. At that moment, they were so gentle, so loving, so kind, and I was relieved they had come for me. I was released into my parents’ care.
My family doctor recommended my parents leave me in hospital to be diagnosed. I was referred to a psychiatrist, and I literally threw a temper tantrum at my mother and walked out. My doctor then advised my mother to take me immediately to Emergency. Once there, I was admitted under Form 3 of the Ontario Mental Health Act, allowing me to be held involuntarily for two weeks, for observation, as I was a potential risk to myself. When I realized my parents weren’t going to be taking me home, and were going to leave me in that awful place, I again turned on them and threw them out. They were asked to leave by the clinicians in the ward, as being further upset was not good for my state. In the end, I was detained in a psychiatric crisis ward for three days. Each day my father tried to visit me, but I refused him admittance.
After three days of observation and medication, it was quickly determined that I was a very “classical” case of bipolar disorder I, and was experiencing a psychotic break. Once I acknowledged that I was ill, I was again released to my parents, and was now convinced that I really did have a problem. I left the hospital with appropriate medication and recommendations for lifestyle changes and psychotherapy. I was wracked with guilt, finally realizing what I had done, and terrified at the burden I would be to my parents and sister.
Within a few months, my parents, and a very special family friend I refer to as my “second mother,” attended an eight-week family education group at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), where they received the information they needed to provide me with the support I will need for the rest of my life. This was our turning point together. My mother and I made a deal of total honesty that has been honoured to this day. Whether I am in need or not, my parents and second mother, my sister, and my best friend are available to me without question, regardless of the issue, and they are all well equipped to listen, support, encourage, and direct me to the right tools and resources I have available to me. When I have a bad day, I always call my mom.
I know it’s hard for them to see me struggle when I am in an episode, whether it’s depression or mania. I still struggle with feeling like a burden, but I am richly blessed with five people who are equipped and happy to support me, and talk me down from my tears, anxiety, or fear. My family wants to help me the best way they can, regardless of what illness I may have. The fact that my illness is a mental illness is irrelevant to them. This has required a tremendous amount of forgiveness for all the wounds during my teenage years, but we as a family agreed in 2005 that we could not change the past, so we were going to leave it behind and move forward. I credit the education received at CAMH for giving my family the tools they would need to support me. They can’t fix it for me, they can’t make it go away, but they can help ease the suffering, and they help me make decisions when I can’t think clearly. With medication, and significant lifestyle changes that I’ve come to embrace, we support each other, and share what we learn on this journey.
Within months of my psychotic break, and with the support of my family, I realized that being diagnosed with bipolar disorder was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. It allowed me to receive the treatment I so desperately needed, and has given me the ability to have a considerably more stable, happy, and successful life. I am now 38-years-old, and the last seven years of family support, excellent medical care, lifestyle changes, experience, and education have changed the course of my entire life. They’ve allowed me stability, the means to maintain the same employment, and even the ability to have my own home.
Follow me on Twitter @amelia_mims
Mental Illness IS NOT…
…something that makes a person bad
…weird or strange
Mental Illness IS…
…a treatable medical condition, that requires lifestyle changes
….more successfully treated when a patient has a strong social network and encouragement.
…a condition that requires support, total acceptance, non-judgement and love.
…still stigmatized and one of the last few bastions of discrimination in Canada
…a condition that lacks awareness
…in desperate need of funding and strategy for medical care, social support and research
Mental Illness generally breaks down into 2 categories. There are Mood Disorders such as depression, anxiety and Bipolar Disorder (previously known as manic depression), and Thought Disorders such as schizophrenia. In cases of more severe illness, a mood disorder can affect thoughts and thought disorders can affect mood. Either Mood or Thought Disorder, these are medical conditions that require medication, therapeutic support and lifestyle changes to minimize episodes of illness. Some with mental illnesses will be chronically ill, some episodically ill, some will only be ill once or twice in their lives.
Having a Mental Illness which has been diagnosed for 7 years, I have had the great pleasure of meeting many others that struggle with various illnesses and disorders. In many cases those I have met have concurrent disorders meaning more than one mental illness. This could be a Bipolar Disorder and OCD, or Schizophrenia and an Addiction, or Depression and Anxiety, regardless it is on this journey that I have met some of the most insightful, compassionate, kind, creative, intelligent, eccentric, interesting people I have ever met. You would never, ever guess these special friends are even ill or have any type of condition.
Follow me on Twitter @amelia_mims
This is my first blog and I’m starting it so I can spread a message of acceptance for those with mental illnesses. I don’t really like that term, but until medical terminology is updated it is the term we clearly understand to represent illnesses such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, but to name a few. I hope you will support my cause by changing your everyday actions and interactions with those you know have a mental illness. Be an encouragement, be supportive, understanding, offer a hand, make a joke and be a fun distraction. Just don’t discriminate and most certainly don’t under estimate the brilliant and creative minds that inhabit this beautiful earth filled with a magnificent diversity of human beings.
Follow me on Twitter @amelia_mims