But you don’t act like you’re [insert mental health diagnosis here]

Girl 1I have bipolar disorder. After years of struggling to find an appropriate diagnosis, years of misleading, suggested and “not otherwise specified” attempts to pin down what was “wrong” with me, I finally feel satisfied with the diagnosis I’ve been given. This is, of course, after an odyssey of inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations and a couple of times at residential treatment centers, which spanned almost a decade of locked treatment in my 23 years of life. That doesn’t even include the time spent in therapy.

I have been out of psychiatric facilities for over two years now, after years of truly believing that my future was forever destined to either be called “crazy” and locked up, or take a path that would lead to my eventual, self-induced demise. I was absolutely convinced that I was an awful person who deserved that bad hand that I’d been given, and that I was better off dead than living as a burden to my friends and family.

The other day, I shared my new diagnosis with a close friend, and their response was one of complete surprise and misunderstanding. “But you don’t act like you’re bipolar,” they said. I blew it off as something they said out of a lack of knowledge or understanding about mental health. But then I realized that that’s exactly the problem. Too many people dismiss people with serious mental health needs as being too “normal” or their symptoms as not being “severe enough” to need treatment. When they most need the support they are apparently not to be taken seriously.

How exactly is someone with bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, PTSD, you name it, supposed to act? Because I believe that that’s part of the problem, the belief that people with mental health needs have noticeable traits that set them apart from the rest of society. That you can pick out the “crazy” people from the crowd and somehow “protect” yourself or your family from their “dangerous” influence, as the media would have us believe. And it’s this negative misconception that leads people who need treatment, often times for their own safety, to not seek it out, to be afraid of what the people they love might think.

Well, let me reveal something to you. Mental health struggles can happen to anyone, at any point in their lives. That’s right, I said anyone. So it could be your kid’s kindergarten teacher who’s bipolar but manages well enough with the right medications and her weekly therapy sessions. It could be the employee in the office who makes everyone else laugh because bringing people joy helps keep his depression in check. And it could be you, someday. The thing that all three of those examples have in common is that all those people would be categorized in the “normal” category. They don’t “look’ “sick”…but they are.

So I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if someone confides in you about their mental health status, support them. Don’t discount their experience or not validate them because you’re only seeing the good days. And, as a whole, we need to stop thinking (consciously or unconsciously) that mental health is this scary, dangerous thing that should be feared and will *hopefully* never happen to us. But believing that, and acting accordingly, reinforces the stigma that so many of us who receive treatment experience. And wants to contribute to that?

Our guest blogger is Dani Walsh.  Dani is a 23 year old college student and mental health advocate living with bipolar disorder.  She enjoys writing poetry and singing


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3 thoughts on “But you don’t act like you’re [insert mental health diagnosis here]

  1. I enjoyed the article very much and find that I agree fully with the opinion that people misjudge based on someone’s “normal” behavior. I am the mother of a 40 year old mentally ill son. We first noticed changes when he began college. He is brilliant and has almost a complete recall memory. He always excelled at everything he did while growing up. And we didn’t expect any different for him in college. But he began to act “strangely” for him. Nothing we could put our finger on. Just not his normal behavior. We wondered if perhaps he was experimenting with pot, as we had done in college. Or, the stress of being away from home might be troubling and stressing him out. We could never determine what might be wrong, and life moved forward.
    He got married a few years later, but always kept jobs – for about 6 months at a time. There were just odd behaviors that we never had seen and didn’t understand. By the time he was 30 we were pretty sure it was mental illness, but he never wanted to discuss it, and because he was an adult and married, we felt powerless and helpless to intervene and get help for him.
    He did pretty well most of the time, but eventually his wife and their two kids moved in with us because he was drinking, roaming the streets, and she didn’t want to end up homeless because he wasn’t working enough to pay their rent. And fast forward a few more years… She got a job – for the first time in her life, and was successful at it. He moved back in with her and was a good stay at home dad for their two kids. Things were actually going pretty well for a few years. Then, she got pregnant with their 3rd child. We knew she would not be able to afford infant care, and we knew he could not take care of an infant. So we suggested they move into our house with us. It is large, and they had a wing of their own, and we were on the opposite side of the house. We made this work for 3 years.
    Our son has been under a doctors care, seeing a psychiatrist and a therapist every month for almost 5 years. He never misses his medication. And even with all this, with a very supportive family and extended family, he has still struggled. It is heartbreaking as his mother to watch his agony with just living life.
    For the past 6 months we have watched him sink to a new depth of illness. He began obsessively walking up and down the back walk in our spacious fenced back yard for up to 8 hours every day. Walking. Just walking. He barely ever slept. We became more and more frightened.
    But he perceived every conversation or attempt to help him find solutions (more therapy, different medication, yoga, etc.) as controversy. He became suspicious of everything and everyone. His mania was frightening. He came close to hitting me a few times, but never did. It was the first time in his entire life we became terrified of what would become of him.
    Then, two weeks ago the unthinkable happened. He walked out of our house, away from his wife and kids, us, his parents, his sisters, grandparents, and all the rest of our family. He left his pickup behind. He sold his coin collection (behind our backs), got on a bus, and left.
    He phoned one time to say he is in Greenbay. We know no one there. We have never been there. It is cold there. We don’t have any way to know for sure that is where he is, but we live in terror that the phone will ring. Or not ring.
    Being the mother of a mentally ill adult child is very challenging. And heartbreaking.
    But not as challenging or heartbreaking as being the one suffering with the mental illness.
    And to tie all of this in to the article I want to say: people do not understand. They judge. They think my son is lazy. They think of mentally ill people as different. He looks like others (most of the time). He acts appropriately in public and at family and social gatherings (most of the time).
    Mental illness does wear a lot of different faces. Please do be gentle in judging when someone you know says they have mental illness, or confide that their child does. It is a very lonely and frightening way of life.

  2. This is the right blo for everyone who really wants
    to understand this topic. You know a whole lot its almost touyh to
    argue with you (not that I personally would want to…HaHa).
    You definitely put a new spin on a topic that has been written about for years.
    Great stuff, just great!

  3. Dani- Impressive blog. You continue to be an amazing advocate that helps the many people across multiple settings to understand “people” for who they are no matter what age! Keep us your writing, and poetry.. I am honored to know you!

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