Bipolar is a life-long illness. Life-long. Forever.
And I have it.
When I was given the diagnosis of bipolar I immediately saw it as a death sentence — an incurable disease with which I could never accomplish my goals, never follow my dreams, never be stable enough to have a family, a job or a degree.
Many were surprised to hear that comedian Robin Williams, who died last week, had also struggled with mental illness in the form of depression.
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Many view mental illness as a disease that will ruin you, something incurable from which you can never escape. Many see mental illness as a disease that only affects those struggling with homelessness on the streets, those in the prison system or, worse yet, those who commit violence.
If this is all the public sees and knows, why wouldn’t they think of it as something incurably wrong with people? Why would they not see it as something bound to ruin their, their loved ones’ and possibly strangers’ lives? Why would the government provide resources to fix an intractable problem?
When I was first diagnosed at the age of 19, I began looking for role models who had been there too. I felt so alone and frightened. I did not connect with the people I saw living unstable lives on the streets and struggling with lack of support and resources.
I found a brilliant author, professor and expert on bipolar, Kay Redfield Jamison, who also lives with the disease. When she spoke at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, I jumped at the chance to hear her in person.
She explained that those who lived well with mental illness didn’t have to talk about it. And why would they? Mental illness carries a stigma perpetuated by misconceptions, ignorance and what often feels like hatred. Why would people come out if they could hide this embarrassing fact?
This is how the stigma of mental illness persists: People who live well with mental illness don’t talk about it. They don’t come out and say that mental illness is not some incurable, life-ruining disease — but one that can be managed, like diabetes. That with the right supports, treatment and, yes, often luck, these illnesses cannot only be managed, but can be positive.
My road has not been easy. But if asked whether I would take away the illness at the expense of the lessons learned, I would have to say no.
I would choose to be hospitalized yet another time. I would deal with the self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse, shame and fear because it has made me who I am. I still live with these challenges daily.
But today, because of the strength, courage and endurance I have gained, I live a life I am proud of. I was a published author by 26, interned with the World Health Organization in Switzerland, traveled by myself to India and am about to start graduate school at Brown University. And I have to say, I’m proud I live with a disability.
We are all different. I am not saying everyone can do the things I do or the things that Jamison does. But as Allen Doederlein, president of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance says, we don’t have to merely survive, we can thrive.
With increased psychiatric support and resources, wrap-around systems of care, peer advocates and the help of many others, people living with mental illnesses can live full lives again. Lives they are proud of.
Though some mental illnesses may be incurable now, they can be managed. If managed with respect and care, those impacted by mental illness would make society a stronger, more resilient and more compassionate place — one in which we can all thrive.
Linea Johnson is a Seattle-based national mental health advocate, speaker, writer and co-author of “Perfect Chaos: A Daughter’s Journey with Bipolar, A Mother’s Struggle to Save Her” (St. Martin’s Press).