Freedom from the Mental Illness Shame Cycle

When I was 21, I made a suicide pact with myself. I felt the weight of the world on a consistent basis, as I struggled with depression, mania, and the chaos of jumping from one failed medication to the next. My mind was not my friend, and I didn’t feel safe in my body. At the young age of 21, I was fatigued from fighting the swirling thoughts and the heavy waves. I was burdened by being the only one who suffers from such a debilitating disorder.

I didn’t want to be on this exhausting earth any longer than necessary.

I decided that by my 41st birthday, I would end it all.

Today I turn 39. I have been in a stable place mentally for over a decade. The giant roller coaster I used to ride with my moods is now just a soft swell, a gentle up and down of a kiddie coaster.

I have no intention of ending my life. Not now. Not ever.

img_7600My life is a gift. My illness is a gift. For so long I lived in shame about my diagnosis. I didn’t want to share about it, and I didn’t want to look “abnormal.” I knew I carried a stigma. Today I am learning that thanks to my moods, I get to see the world from a different lens. Colors are richer and brighter to me. The air is fresher. Sounds are more soothing and meaningful. Everything is vibrant and alive. And even when they are not, and I experience a drop in my mood, I see the dark side and feel more deeply than others… meaning I can empathize with others’ pain in a way I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

I know now that my pain has a purpose. My pain showed me who I can be in spite of a broken brain.

I was diagnosed with bipolar 21 years ago, but I no longer am limited by my label. My label doesn’t define me. I no longer sit in shame over the phrase a doctor gave me when I was 18.

Lately, my shame of diagnosis has shifted to shame of survival. When I am doing well, I wonder why. I question my motives. Am I hypomanic? Am I living in reality or living in a state of grandiosity? I question why something that “normal” people would consider confidence and determination is redefined as hypomania because I have a diagnosis? The internal self-assessmet continues every time I share my story and am honest about my journey. I don’t want to be a fraud, and I don’t want to sugarcoat my journey just because my symptoms present more mildly than they used to.

I am proactive daily. I strive to be in tune with my mind, so I keep a wide array of strategies available to support my health. They include regular counseling and doctor’s appointments, a strong support team, routine, consistent sleep schedule, whole food nutrition (I eat more vegetables in a day than I used to in a week), regular movement, sunshine, supplementation, meditation, and a daily practice of gratitude.

Mental illness is not just mental. It’s not “all in my head.” It affects every single aspect of my life, and I have learned to approach it from every single aspect of life. As I continue to reflect on what I have learned in over two decades of battling my moods, I can’t help but realize that while I haven’t been healed from bipolar disorder, my struggle with bipolar disorder has healed me from complacency. It has made me stronger and more resilient. It taught me self-compassion and patience.

I no longer feel imprisoned by my brain. Slowly I am breaking away from all forms of shame. I can embrace who I am, racing thoughts and all. I am a survivor. And I’m not giving up.

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