In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I decided to do something a little different. I usually share my personal thoughts and feelings on various subjects, but today I want to share something that has affected my family and that is Mental Illness. Recently someone very close to me was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and I had no idea how to handle it. I knew she had mood swings and sometimes suffered from depression, but I was not aware she was bipolar. We always joked about being crazy or say “Something’s wrong with you”. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would come true. My family member consented to do an interview with me because she wanted to help stop the stigma in the world about mental illness, and I applaud her for being so forthcoming.
The young lady I interviewed is my beloved niece, Jackie. If you know me personally, you are aware that Jackie and I are very close, and I would do anything in the world for her. She’s been a fixture in my life since I was nine years old. I still remember her tagging along with me when I went outside to play. I did not want a toddler running behind me, but I had no choice. Eventually, she grew on me and we have been best buds every since. Jackie is a free spirit who is fun and brutally honest. She’s my ace and we are usually present for the important milestones in each other’s lives. She lives in Texas and I live in Florida, but we see each other as much as we can. One of the best things about social media was being able to contact her everyday to see what was going on in her life. Imagine my surprise one day, when I logged in and realized she no longer had an account. That concerned me, but I dismissed it, not wanting to be the nagging auntie. Eventually, I decided enough was enough and I decided to call her to find out what was going on. We talked, but still there was something left unsaid. I wasn’t sure what, but I knew she would tell me in her own time. Knowing Jacks, you can’t push her into doing anything. You have to let her come to the conclusion by herself and then and only then will she open up.
Once she called to let me know she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was floored, but tried to remain as supportive as possible. I listened to her as she explained what was happening in her life, and she sounded so sure of herself. I was proud she took time to figure out how to deal with her illness and decided to continue life as usual. There was no shame in her voice and I was happy because people try to make mental illness this horrible thing, but it’s simply an illness. I write this so we all can take a step towards taking the MENTAL out of “Mental Illness.” Here’s what Jackie had to say:
LWT: How did you find out you had bipolar disorder?
JKM: I’ve always known something was different but for more than a decade, I have not been able to put my finger on it. Then one day, part of a WebMD email I typically get asked the question, “Are you bipolar?” So, I took the quiz and the results told me I was. But c’mon, really, it’s a WebMD quiz so I didn’t take it too seriously. The next time it came to my attention was one day when my brother came home from class and told me, “Jackie, you are bipolar”. We learned about it today in Psych class and you are totally bipolar.” He then began going down the “checklist” and I realized that I exhibited every symptom. For the first time, I think I took it into consideration. From there, I began to truly ponder if I was and started doing more research and everything I read led me to the same conclusion. I went to see a psychiatrist and the diagnosis was confirmed. I am bipolar.
LWT: There are four types of Bipolar Disorder, which type do you have?
JKM: I have Bipolar II disorder.
LWT: What symptoms did you display to prompt you to go to the doctor for diagnosis?
JKM: I began having seizures that I could not explain. They were not epileptic and upon further research, I discovered they were what are considered “phantom seizures” that can occur with people that suffer from depression and anxiety. I already knew my depression and anxiety were factors, but it didn’t explain why they were causing seizures? Then one Sunday morning, I woke up and walked down the hall and a picture I had wanted to hang up for a week was hung up. I immediately went to thank my brother for hanging it and he advised me that he did not do it, that I had hung it up the night before. He then began to describe an odd occurrence from the night before in which I was very talkative and exhibiting manic behavior in such a way that you could perceive me as being high and that I had hung up the picture myself. He described my behavior as so odd and so not “myself” that it made him quite uncomfortable.
I had absolutely no recollection of doing any of those things or of the conversations, behavior of the night before. The fact that I could be completely different, do things and have no recollection scared me. I immediately began to wonder what else I have done that I’ve blacked out. It was at that moment, I knew I needed to get down to the bottom of what was going on.
- Since some people are diagnosed early in their childhood, do you think you may have suffered for a longer period of time before the discovery? If yes, please tell our readers, why you feel that way?
At times throughout my life, my depression and anxiety have been debilitating and have caused me to do destructive things. I never could figure out the why…I just knew this is how I feel. The whole “snap out of it” was a constant dialogue in my head. But I couldn’t snap out of it and I couldn’t explain it. No one, including myself understood what was wrong.
LWT: What was your reaction when you got the word and please describe how you felt?
JKM: Initially, relief. Finally, there is something concretely wrong that explains everything. The depression, the anxiety, the seizures, the OCD, the feelings of “what is wrong with me?” Then, fear set in. What will people say, what will they think…what about my family? I’ve always joked that I’m crazy, now….I really am?
LWT: Who was the first person you told and what feelings did you experience? What was their reaction?
JKM: brother was the first person I told. His reaction, “Jackie, I told you that you were.” I have to admit that his initial reaction slightly hurt my feelings because of all my feelings from above but then, it was comforting because it was like saying, duh! Duh because how is it you couldn’t see that. Duh because really, it’s not that big of a deal, it is what it is.
LWT: Once you were able to accept being bipolar, did you feel you needed to hide it from people?
JKM: I don’t know that I can say yet that I’ve truly accepted it. Every day, it sinks in a little bit more. Initially, yes and no. Yes because I don’t want to be stigmatized. No because this is me. But as I start getting used to it, I find the wanting to hide getting less and less. Am I going to shout it from the rooftops? No, but if asked, I don’t feel the need to be ashamed.
LWT: I know you deleted all of your social media accounts, what was the reasoning behind you doing that?
JKM: I was using them as an excuse to not focus on myself or my health. For most of my life, it has always been about everyone else but me. It’s how I feel most comfortable. However, I knew in order to do the work necessary to become a healthier person; I needed to take away any distraction that was a major stumbling block in the path on this journey.
LWT: How have your friends and family reacted to the news?
JKM: That’s been an interesting part of this. My family has been nothing but supportive and proud of me. Proud that I am finally getting the help needed. I say interesting because for some reason everyone around me saw it, but I did not. They saw that something was wrong but did not know what or how to explain it or tell me. You could see the “relief” on their face or it was like watching a light bulb go off. I’ve even had one friend tell me, I’ve known that about you since the day we met. And I met her 15 years ago. OMG….really?!?!
LWT: There is such a stigma about mental health, especially in the African American community, why did you decide to do this interview?
JKM: For the very reason you posed the question. I know for a fact that I did nothing wrong to cause this and that it is part of my genetic background. However, I ask myself everyday why the conversation has never been had. Especially when there is a commonality of symptoms from past generations to the present generation. Parents want to warn their children of the dangers of sex, drugs, alcohol, etc… But when you have a mental illness, the same sex, drugs and alcohol they warn you about can and most times become crutches for not dealing with what’s wrong because you don’t know what’s wrong. Or if you do know, your family is so ashamed that they “brush it under the rug”. Education is the key to knowledge. Having a discussion with your children or family is simply another way to educate. Most importantly, the lesson should be that they did nothing wrong to cause this and that having a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.
LWT: Has your condition affected your workplace? If so, in what way?
JKM: In the beginning, I did not see it that way. However, now reflecting on myself and the past, I can say without a doubt it has. My attitude and energy were never consistent. I was always restless. I’ve had others I’ve worked for and with tell me, they were never sure “which Jackie would show up”. That made people uncomfortable. Then when they became uncomfortable, I blamed them or ran. It was easier to do that than be honest and/or deal with the issue.
LWT: What type of treatment are you receiving to help control the symptoms?
JKM: I am currently taking medication and seeing a therapist.
LWT: It is well known people who have bipolar disorder can live their lives without it being debilitating. Tell our readers how is your recovery going?
JKM: So far, my recovery is going well. I am beginning to feel better with each day. Some days, I’m amazed at the difference. I am extremely thankful to have the support necessary to help me on this journey.
LWT: Like most people who reveal they are suffering from a disease, it may make people uncomfortable and they may not know what to say to you. How would you address them?
JKM: The best thing you can say is, “I don’t know what to say”. So often when people don’t know what to say, they say something that makes no sense or does not even pertain to what the person has revealed. That can leave whomever the revealer is feeling ashamed. Most of the time, all we want is someone to listen. Learn to listen and take time to educate yourself of that person’s condition.
LWT: What is the main point you want people to obtain by reading this article?
JKM: Mental illness is a disease and it’s not anything to be ashamed of. The person suffering is no different than you or I. There is nothing that person has done or could do to cause what has happened. Most importantly, they deserve love and acceptance. When someone tells you they have cancer, the immediate reaction is one of concern and support. When someone tells you they have a mental illness, the immediate reaction is one of the opposite. But honestly, what’s the difference. Neither is anything that person did to cause what has happened. Both are diseases that require treatment. The treatments may be different but that does and should not diminish the impact to the person’s life.