Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘blogs’

Understanding Mental Illness

My friend Martin Baker ( recently posted a series of prompts for mental health bloggers. Number 29 was: Can you ever really understand if you’ve not experienced mental ill health yourself? Here are my thoughts.

In general, I do believe that having a mental illness yourself is the best and perhaps the only way to truly understand the reality of mental illness – the daily struggles, the need for self-care, the loneliness, and the stigma.

I’ve noted before that my mother-in-law didn’t really understand the concept of mental illness. It was like the time when she saw some women on the Phil Donahue show who were talking about their hysterectomies and the pain and suffering they went through. “Those women are such liars,” she said. “I had it done and it wasn’t like that at all.” It’s a matter of assuming your own experience is true for the rest of the world as well, a common logical fallacy. (Later she came around to believing mental illness existed, at least. I attribute this to spending time with me and my husband and reading one of the books I wrote, Bipolar Me.)

Even my husband – who has lived with me for 40 years, sympathized greatly, and helped me unselfishly – didn’t really “get depression” until he got depression. It was a situational depression that deepened into clinical depression. He’s still on medication for it. I remember him saying that he felt miserable and despondent, and had for months. “Try doing it for years,” I said. “I couldn’t,” he replied.

With a person who doesn’t understand – or even believe in – mental illness, there’s not a lot you can do to change their mind. The images and stories they get from the news, movies, novels, and TV shows tell them that anyone with a mental illness is likely to be a serial killer or a crazed gunman, probably psychotic or at least delusional. Conversely, they can believe that any notorious evildoer must have been mentally ill and probably “off their meds” at the time the atrocity occurred.

We often say that education is the answer. Informing people about the reality of mental illness is supposed to raise their consciousness and help eradicate stigma. That’s all well and good, but getting accurate and informative materials into people’s hands is not that easy. Sure, there are websites, books, and blogs, but the general population simply doesn’t run across these on their own. We who deal with mental illness daily must point them to these resources. Even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll read or interact with the resources. They have to be interested in and open to the topic.

Public awareness campaigns featuring movie stars and top athletes may help in getting the audience to believe in mental illness in others, and even if they have a mental disorder such as depression themselves. Whether these can counteract the inaccurate and insensitive portrayals of mental illness in the media is still, I think, an open question. Even commercials for various medications for psychiatric illnesses can help people understand a little bit more, though I still believe that many of these ads present a less-than-accurate picture of depression, for example, making it seem no worse than a hangover. And many of the ads promote telemedicine sites for those who have – or suspect they have – some sort of mental disorder. They are less useful for the totally uninformed.

Still, we keep trying to inform and educate. But are we shouting down a rabbit hole or into an echo chamber? Maybe seeing posts from Facebook friends who have mental disorders really does help. I know that some of my Facebook friends have said that my posts and blogs on bipolar disorder have helped them learn.

But in general, I’m pessimistic about people understanding mental illness until or unless they experience it for themselves or in their own families – and maybe not even then. There are those who deny that they have depression, for example, or who may suspect they have a psychiatric disorder but feel that getting help is “for the weak.”

Or maybe I’m just pessimistic today.

Nevertheless, I’ll go on writing this blog in the hope that it will make a difference to someone.

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Sharing About Bipolar

Sometimes I despair. I have realized that part of the meaning in my life is to share with other people the realities of bipolar disorder. At times, I think I have failed. I know I shouldn’t let the fact that others, such as Gabe Howard, Pete Earley, and Laura Pogliano, to name but a few, do it better than I do discourage me. This is not a contest. Everything any of us does to spread the word about bipolar and other mental disorders is a positive thing.

Here are some things I have tried.

Books. I wrote two books based on my blog posts. Neither of them sold very many copies. The first one was published by what I’d call a seat-of-the-pants indie company, and the other one half by them and half by myself, so quasi-self-published. I had a book reading/signing at the local Barnes & Noble. Two people came. We did have an interesting question-and-answer session, even drawing in a couple more people from the cafe where we set up.

I promoted my books, but not very well. There were a couple of podcasts. On one, for first-time authors, it was evident that the host had never read my book, though I sent him one. He asked me questions like, “Are there any other creative people in your family?” My interview on Bipolar Girl went better, but I had no way to gauge the response. I got a write-up in the local paper, but it was clear they wanted me to buy an ad, which I was unable to afford and my publishing company was unwilling to fund. The publishing company did send out form letters to various outlets, but I completely misjudged who should receive them. There were no reviews.

Tattoos. The idea behind the Semicolon Project was that people concerned with suicide awareness and prevention would get tattoos of semicolons. (The idea was that a semicolon is a place in a sentence where a writer could have put a period and stopped, but chose to go on.) When people asked about the peculiar punctuation tattoo, one was supposed to open a dialogue with them about suicide, suicide helplines, and the like. I got the semicolon tattoo and also a bipolar tattoo (a colon, half a parentheses, and another colon to make both a smiley and frowny face). Like this : ) : Gabe Howard has used this symbol on his merchandise, such as t-shirts, mugs, and stickers, and I hope he has achieved a great response. But no one has asked about either of my tattoos, so I have never had to explain them.

Blog. This blog is the most successful of my methods of reaching out to others to get across my message about bipolar disorder and mental health. It reaches a few dozen readers every week, unlike the thousands of viewers that many sites get. I cross-post my blogs to other sites like The Mighty, Medium, and Thought Catalog, when appropriate. I had somewhat of a better following on Medium, but then their Invisible Illness section decided they wanted posts with more research than I was able to provide, and from writers with higher academic degrees than I have.

The Mighty has been the most consistent in featuring my posts and the most successful in garnering responses. They also sent me a The Mighty t-shirt and hoodie, which, again, no one asks about.

I don’t mean to whine (though I suppose I am), but I sincerely wish I could reach more people. There are many in this world who need to hear the messages about mental health in general and bipolar disorder in particular. Of course, I’m not a celebrity, so I’m not likely to be featured in news stories or TV ads. But, since I am out of other ideas, I will keep on with this blog and any way I can think of to spread the message.


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Naming Names

A lot of us I know write about our bipolar disorder or other mental conditions, whether it’s in a letter, journal, blog, or elsewhere. One of the problems that comes up is how to refer to other people who have affected your story or been involved in your life.

When I blog, for example, I try to disguise – at least thinly – the person (other than me) I’m writing about. For family members, I usually leave it at “my sister,” “my mother,” “my aunt,” “my cousin,” etc. Admittedly that’s not much of a disguise, as I’m estranged from my sister (which is a story I’m not likely to tell) and my parents have both passed away. But I have only one sibling and two parents, which makes their identities easy enough to guess, if you know my family at all.

My husband I refer to as Dan, having gotten his permission and never using his last name, which is different from mine. And my doctors I simply call Dr. G and Dr. B, or “my psychiatrist” and “my therapist.”

For friends or others who have affected my life, I invent pseudonyms, usually beginning with the same letter of the alphabet – Brandon for Bob, Joan for Julie, and the like, or a descriptive phrase – my friend the artist, my friend the writer, the rotten-ex-boyfriend-who-almost-ruined-my-life (I assure you he would be unable to recognize himself from that, even if he read my blog, which I’m sure he doesn’t). Some of these people are vital to my past, my present, and my stories, but I don’t feel I have the right to divulge their names.

If I write about these people in my other blog, the non-bipolar one (, I might – and sometimes do – call my friends by their first names: Peggy the artist, Michael the writer, or sometimes leave them anonymous. In those blogs, I mention them with no pejoratives attached, or I use pseudonyms if I do.

When you’re writing in a letter or a journal which someone else might read (journals are not as sacrosanct as you might think or wish), it’s hard to avoid naming names. Once I was writing in my journal and a nearby person happened to glance over my shoulder and see what I was writing. Or you might let your therapist read a few pages of your journal to explain a situation that you were reacting to in the past. That’s safe, though. Your therapist is your therapist and not allowed to discuss your case with anyone you know.

Letters, however, are dangerous. First, there’s the kind that your therapist has you write to a person who hurt you, for example, as an exercise on how to express your feelings. Never send these letters. Even if you want to tell the person exactly how you really feel or felt, your raw, uncensored emotions and view of events are more likely to do harm than good. Especially if you’ve been in an abusive relationship or have been gaslighted, never reach out. It gives the person another way to be involved with your life, which is what you don’t want.

Then there’s the possibility that whoever you wrote about accidentally reads the letter or journal. This can ruin whatever chance you might have had to repair the relationship (if that’s what you really want to do). Tear letters up, delete them, put them in a file called Never Send if you feel you must keep them to remind yourself of how you felt back then. But don’t send them or show them to anyone other than your therapist. (And keep in mind that your letters can be found accidentally, or after your death.)

I have known a couple, one of whom wrote to the other to present an ultimatum, and it didn’t work. The oblivious partner simply ignored it, which you’ll understand also caused great pain. It was a significant factor in breaking up their marriage. They were both, by profession, supposed to be good with words, but in this case, neither writing the letter nor reading it succeeded.

I suppose it’s time to resurrect that old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” When used to “encourage” children who have been bullied, it is a lie. But keep in mind that your words can definitely hurt someone else – or yourself – too. Try not to do that.

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