Wednesday, May 9, 2018
TRUTH is within ourselves;
it takes no rise From outward things,
whate’er you may believe.
There is an inmost centre in us all,
Where truth abides in fullness; and around,
Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
This perfect, clear perception—which is truth.
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
Binds it, and makes all error: and, to KNOW,
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without
—Paracelsus, Robert Browning
In life, there are secrets and revelations. Things that isolate or emancipate. Secrets are not always kept deceptively—sometimes we simply choose to respect our own privacy around sensitive matters. It often happens that life keeps secrets from us. We spend our lives piecing together clue after clue until we finally discover who we are.
Many of us live with secrets that, at some crisis point, inevitably turn into revelations. Whether welcome or unwelcome, revelations arrive suddenly and are usually life-changing, like the one I experienced a few years ago.
My secret was bipolar disorder. I didn’t want anyone to know I had a mental illness. I was afraid it would jeopardize my relationships and livelihood. Why was I so reluctant to share this significant part of myself with my family, friends, and coworkers? After all, they should be my natural support system, right?
Stigma shames those of us who live with mental health diagnoses. It unfairly erodes community support to those who need it most. Prejudice is fear perpetuated by stereotypes and narrow-mindedness. Bipolar can be an overwhelming disease, all-consuming at times. It has a negativity bias, meaning that when we are symptomatic, we feel bad about ourselves and our world. Society’s projection of shame only serves to keep us entrenched in that prison.
As with some types of cancer, mental illness can be terminal. If stigma is reduced, however, the number of people dying by suicide will go down because the key to preventing this tragic end, according to evidence-based prevention programs, is connection. Connection counters the painful isolation that is characteristic of many mental illnesses. For this, we need empathetic people and empathetic communities.
This critical shift requires a dismantling of stigma. It is a social justice issue.
When I began to recover from a severe mixed episode (simultaneous depression and mania) in 2013, I decided to do something daring and new as part of my treatment: I decided to be open about my illness. This was extremely difficult given my nature as a private person, but it was a last-ditch effort to change the course of my life. I joined the board of NAMI Whatcom, earned my certification as a Peer Counselor, and started speaking and writing publicly. My goals were to give and receive support. I was searching for hope.
The more frequently mental illness is talked about, the more likely it is that peers and family members will connect with services and one another. Connection increases participation in community, which enriches everyone. Hearing people’s stories of hope is inspiring and empowering—whether the person speaking is Mariah Carey, Dwayne Johnson, Demi Lovato, Carrie Fisher, Rick Springfield, or you and me. Moreover, research shows that knowing someone successful who has experienced a mental illness is the number-one way people overcome their prejudice.
You can imagine (or may know) how hard it is for happiness to squeeze itself into the chaos and pain of a mood disorder. Nevertheless, the human spirit is resilient and strong, and happiness can squeeze in. A lyric by Leonard Cohen reads, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
I found hope along my journey. I started to unexpectedly recognize happiness through the veil of my illness. Although this respite can be transitory (due to cycling), my stretches of wellness are now longer and the times of suffering less severe and more manageable. I’ve learned that I can have bipolar disorder and be happy at the same time.
If you have bipolar, don’t give up. If you have any kind of mental illness, don’t give up. You do belong and you can contribute. Your life is valuable, and you can experience periods of wellness and moments of happiness that will carry you through times of distress. You may have cracks, like everyone does, but you are not broken. You may not feel as stable and whole as you would like to, but remember, it is through the cracks that the light gets in.
While Cohen’s lyric is beautiful and applicable, poet Robert Browning had it right, too: Cracks reveal the truth inside so “the imprisoned splendour may escape.”
In life, there are secrets and revelations. Whether you choose to talk about your mental health journey, remember to share the revelation of your light with the world.
Don’t let that be a secret.
Marie Marchand has served on the Board of NAMI Whatcom since 2014. NAMI Whatcom, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, provides no-cost education and support programs to people affected by mental illness. www.namiwhatcom.org, 360-671-4950.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 and Text 741741