I don’t have a mental illness…at least not a diagnosed one. But that’s not to say mental illness hasn’t affected my life. My best friend was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I saw first-hand the difficulties that came with the diagnosis. You might assume that these difficulties were from her internal struggle, trying to cope with the illness. And part of that is true…years after her diagnosis, she still struggles to stay balanced. As hard as that has been, the struggle to get help seemed even greater.
It took a long time for my friend Mary (I’m not using her real name) to get help. I knew her long before she started taking medication for bipolar disorder; she was in denial for years. She didn’t have too many close friends, as she was very moody. Some days, she would be full of life and spontaneous, eager to try new things and take on the world. Other days, she would cancel our plans out of the blue. Some of the time, she would give me a fake explanation. “I have to take Max to the vet,” she would say, knowing that I wouldn’t call her on the bluff. Other times, she just wouldn’t show up.
But every so often, she would be honest with me. On a few occasions, she explained that she was just so jaded with her life that she couldn’t get out of bed. That it all seemed like such a waste of time. The first time she really opened up to me about these feelings, I started to suspect that something was wrong.
As her mood swings became more apparent, I wondered how I could talk to Mary about the possibility that she might be bipolar. No matter how many times I had the conversation in my head, I couldn’t say the words out loud. I’d seen how they portray bipolar people on the TV and in movies; they’re shown as maniacs with no regard for the people around them. Of course Mary would be furious if I told her my opinion; it would be as if I were telling her she was crazy.
The day came when I could no longer be silent about Mary’s behavior. One day, she called me sobbing, telling me that she couldn’t go on like this. When I went to see her, she told me that she wanted to end her life. That was the moment that I knew I might lose my friend forever. I had already armed myself with knowledge of bipolar disorder and I started the conversation that I had gone through in my mind so many times.
Mary was upset with me at first. She thought I was a bad friend for even thinking that something was wrong with her. She even told me to stay away for a while. But she soon saw the reason behind what I said. She realized that her lows were so low…and her highs were so high. She recognized that her behavior was erratic, that she made some major life-changing decisions on a whim. And once she realized that, she went for help and was able to start treatment for her illness. She understood that none of it was her fault, and that she would always have my full support.
This isn’t a fairy-tale story. Mary has had some tough times, thanks to the stigma associated with mental illness. When people find out that she has Bipolar Disorder, they look at her funny. She’s kept it a secret at work because she’s afraid of being passed up for promotions. Every day is a struggle, but now Mary can see the beauty in life.
If there wasn’t such a strong stigma attached to mental illness, maybe Mary would have gone for help sooner. Maybe I would have had the courage to start the conversation sooner. Maybe other people would have the courage to do the same. But as long as there’s a stigma attached to a diagnosis, people will deny that something is wrong.
About the Author
Dani Gallagher is a writer for Wearable Therapy by Tokii, an advocacy-wear clothing company designed to get the conversation started on issues like mental illness. They also spread awareness about these issues through their blog. You can check out more on their Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.