I Can’t

Since my diagnosis, I haven’t been able to do much. I abandoned school in the middle of spring semester four out of four years. Springtime always makes the bipolar more intense and often unbearable. I couldn’t do laundry, go to class or parties, basically nothing but stay in my room and be upset. Sometimes I’d use the episode to make a painting, and god, those paintings born of episodes are the darkest ones I’ve made. None of them are on this site: I believe I burned them all one night in a manic episode. I thought it would be cleansing. It was just destructive. You get a lot of ideas when you’re manic, and most of them are terribly misguided.

Not being able to function like a normal person or tolerate normal amounts of stress is debilitating. I live on disability because I don’t function. I can’t hold a job because any amount of stress will send me into an episode, and surprisingly, people don’t appreciate me hallucinating in their workplace. Even without a job, my life gets very difficult. I have to pride myself for staying alive this long, because that is a big accomplishment for me. If you don’t identify with this, you might think I’m a bum. If you do identify with this, you’re not alone.

We’re told that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and that accepting help is shameful. If you need help and someone is offering, for god’s sake, take it! Humans weren’t built to survive alone. We have families, cities, and societies so that we can all rely on each other. Everyone has to accept help sometimes, even you. If you’re suicidal, tell someone. If you need to take time off from your job, ask someone for financial help. If you think you need medicine, find a psychiatrist. There is nothing shameful in asking for help. We all have to do it to stay alive. No exceptions.

If you live with a mental illness, you know how hard it is to rely on other people. You can feel like a parasite or a burden. I struggle so much with the fear that I’m a burden to my loved ones. The truth is that they love me very much and would do anything to help me. Unfortunately, I only know that’s true when I’m not in an episode. As soon as I start to spiral, I don’t want to tell anyone because I’m so afraid that my episode will upset them and be an enormous inconvenience. And of course, those times are when I most need to know I’m loved and supported.

I don’t know what the secret to healthy self-esteem is when it comes to mental illness. There are many aspects of the mentally ill life that are not relatable to normal people. The depressed or mentally ill are often thought of as weak or lazy, because people don’t get why we don’t function the way they do. A foundational lack of empathy leads to misunderstanding of the reality of our lives. In my world, sometimes something as easy as eating is just not going to get done because I don’t have the capacity. Most normal people don’t understand that level of dysfunction. They might think I didn’t eat because I was too lazy, when really, I was just not able. Lazy has nothing to do with it. I was probably frozen inside, unable to do more than sit, maybe use the bathroom, and go back to sitting. That scenario is pretty standard for a bad day with depression or bipolar.

Lack of function touches everything in my life. I have to make reasonable expectations so that I can parcel out my energy and ability frugally, and not overtax myself and spark an episode. If you’re sick, I recommend you do the same. If you shut down completely, you won’t be getting anything done, which is way worse than only getting some things done. Ration yourself so that you can live your fullest life without losing yourself.

Ask for help. Accept help. Know your limits. Mental illness sucks, and you need lots of help to get better or maintain. Please, please acknowledge when you’re trying as hard as you can. You deserve to love yourself as much as anyone else does. If you can love yourself even just a little, it will help you ask for the help you need.

By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter