A Story Worth Sharing
One day in August 1982, my best friend said she couldn’t help me anymore, that I needed to get professional help. I was 27 years old. So began my life-long journey through the maze and haze of living with mental illness and addiction.
After receiving my friend’s push, I was diagnosed with major depression and took three weeks medical leave from work. I always saw my parents before going home for the day but I was so ashamed that I dragged myself out of bed, dressed for work and visited them as I normally would. Looking back, it was a dreadful decision.
Merriam-Webster defines stigma as a mark of shame, disgrace[...]. A negative stereotype, it takes away from a person’s character or reputation. The fear of that stain is often what keeps those who need help from seeking it. It also contributes to some families’ denial that a loved one (especially a child) needs help. Mental illness is not a result of bad parenting. Too often we hear from parents, other family members or friends after a suicide or other tragic event that they knew something was wrong but did nothing to intervene.
Two years after my initial diagnosis, I relocated thinking a change in job and geography would “fix” me. Initially, I enjoyed success as a middle school math teacher, HS coach and three-term union president. I stopped drinking alcohol cold turkey, which I had been doing heavily from an early age and continued seeing a primary care doctor for my medications. He began to over-prescribe Xanax and I suffered what was probably an inevitable overdose. I spent 30 days hospitalized for addiction recovery.
Throughout the next decade, my journey was not unlike others whose mental illness is misdiagnosed. After a revolving door of short- and long-term hospitalizations for treatment of major depression, borderline personality disorder and multiple personality disorder – none of which I had – and several suicide attempts, an excellent psychiatrist finally put the pieces together. It took almost fifteen years to receive the correct diagnosis. Bipolar I disorder.
There are laws now, that if followed, allow those with any disability, mental or physical, to stay in the workforce and in the jobs for which they are qualified and capable. At the age of 48, it wasn’t to be for me, as ignorance and stigma ended my career.
I have accomplished many things in my life, as a leader in education, athletics and politics. Generous in my philanthropy, I have endowed a scholarship at my alma mater. I practice random acts of kindness and consider my authentic self to be a decent person. But like many others who suffer from this dreadful disease, my relationships with family and friends deteriorated over the years. Few remain. After nearly 40 years after my first diagnosis, I see my therapist weekly and my psychiatrist once a month. Despite being medication compliant, I have many ups and downs and my mood can turn on a dime. I try hard to be the person society wants me to be, but I am who I am.
There is life beyond a diagnosis. It is not a flaw in character nor something you (or anyone else) did to make you sick. There is help, people with whom to talk. If you have a loved one who needs or is getting help, the most important thing you can do for them is to simply be there; you can’t fix them but you can continue to love them. You are not alone. Over 6 million Americans live with bipolar disorder, 16 million with major depression and 42 million with an anxiety disorder. It is not an American illness. Mental illness affects people in every corner of the world.
It’s easier said than done (and a personal decision) but try not to live in the shadows. It’s up to everyone to continue the decades-old stigma awareness and mental illness education conversation and work together to make sure those who need support, medication, therapy - and hope - gets it.
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