I am disabled because of my mental illnesses. I have bipolar II, major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. I was diagnosed when I first presented my bipolar symptoms at age 19, 12 years ago. I also dealt with major depression as a child.
I am disabled because I have mixed-state, rapid cycling episodes with psychotic features. That means I have episodes with severe depression, mania, and anxiety all at once, in addition to having hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions. What an episode looks like for me is here: What Is a Mixed-State Episode? – The Goldfish Painter
One way my mental illnesses affect me is by reducing the number of things I can do successfully. I cannot work a job, because my episodes are not safe or appropriate for a workplace, since I need someone monitoring me if I’m trying to complete tasks. At home, during an episode, there is a long list of things I can’t do, including driving, using knives, mowing the lawn, washing dishes, and lighting any of the gas appliances, because if I make a mistake with any of these tasks I can accidentally hurt myself or others. If I have an episode in public, I need help from a loved one to get through the task. A frequent example is having an episode in the grocery store with my husband. He has to keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t wander off. I do wander, and he has to remind me every time to stay with the cart so he doesn’t lose me. It feels very much like being a child, but, as with a child, it is for my own safety.
My mental illnesses also affect me emotionally. I cry often, especially in episodes, and I deal with long periods of depression during which it is very hard to complete basic self-care, like showering every day, cleaning house, or exercising. When I am overwhelmingly sad and crying, I believe that I am a terrible burden to my loved ones; so much so that I will soon lose all of them, permanently, because it hurts them too much to have me in their lives. It bears mentioning that I am a kind and loving person who works hard to make people feel safe, loved, and heard, so there is nothing in my behavior in daily life that would drive people away from me. Still, during an episode I believe I will lose everyone I love. I feel like a terrible person and an awful burden. I feel guilty for everything I’ve ever gotten wrong, and for the episode itself, because it is so “unfair” that my loved ones have to deal with me.
On the other side of the emotional coin, my mental illness makes me incredibly grateful for the moments when I’m “just okay”. I am always looking for “just okay”. Those are the words in my head when I breathe all the way in and all the way out without thinking about it, and my chest relaxes. I am not worried. I am not tense. I am not preoccupied. I am just okay. I am nothing else in that moment; I am just okay. Honestly, those are precious moments to me. They are sometimes rare. Sometimes they are so rare that I cry when one comes along, and I only feel it for a second before I get angry that I spend so much time yearning for a moment of just being okay. Some people get to be okay at some point every day. I can go for months without a single moment of okay. I try to accept my brain and my place in life, but damn, that feels so unfair.
My social life is also affected by mental illness. My friends are all aware of my condition, and are all very understanding. With new people, I introduce my illness early, usually while identifying with a feeling they present to me that they have had themselves. I do this early to weed out the people who will not understand, because I don’t have any need for those people in my life. Fortunately for the human race, very few people I come across fall into this category of intolerance. I have many faithful friends who want to do whatever they can to help me when I need it, and only need to be told how to help. It is my responsibility to let them know how to help me; they do the rest. I have had episodes around all of my friends, and I now feel safe doing so. The people who are intolerant, I keep at an arm’s length and do not share my feelings or symptoms with, because they could use that information to hurt me down the line. In general, these people tend to be toxic to almost everyone they meet, and they are definitely a minority of the population. Like I said, I believe most people genuinely want to be helpful to those around them.
My entire life revolves around loving others and surviving my illness. I work to live in as little pain as possible, while celebrating time with my loved ones regardless of my mental state. I can love people just as much during an episode as in any other state. The purpose I have assigned to my life is to love others, learn as much about feelings as I can, and spread knowledge about mental illness.
In that way, mental illness affects the very purpose of my life.
By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter