The Uncertainty of Mental Illness

Acknowledging Uncertainty

Collective hours, days, weeks, and months of my family members’ lives have been spent trying to understand and unpack my brother’s inexplicable decisions and lack of reaction to consequence. Alex dropped out of high school, but the classroom doesn’t suit everyone. Alex was discharged from the Army, but they were just drug tested to make an example of his platoon. Alex lost his left leg in a car wreck, but everyone has a false sense of immortality and drives drunk when they’re 22. Alex shot himself in the head and lived, but “god has a plan” for someone who’s survived so much. Alex lives under a bridge, but that fabled rock bottom must be imminent.

Silence falls over the family analysts, downcast eyes resting on a coffee mug handle being pushed back and forth between someone’s thumbs. There isn’t much crying anymore. Those salty reserves were depleted long ago.

Accepting Uncertainty

When I moved to NYC I packed my Diane von Furstenberg, Wellbutrin, and mounting guilt for leaving so much tumult back in Texas. The unidentified seeds of my depression and anxiety sprouted in childhood, their insidious, invisible tendrils choking me through high school and college. Because my mental illnesses were finally able to be identified and medicated, I became able to live some semblance of a normal life.

Alex has not been so fortunate. There has been so much anger bestowed upon my brother due to his inexplicable mental state, including from me. My failure to consider he could not help himself lasted for several years, and it’s only been just recently that I’ve let anger evaporate and acceptance rain down on us both. When I think of my brother, it is with sadness, but it’s mostly with love and mercy. Our genes come from the same pool, and it just so happens that the combination he got created a long-suffering mental state that is either not yet defined in the mental health community or is shrouded in obscurity, yet to be matched and applied to him. It is not his fault.

Embracing Uncertainty

As an orderly person, it is a joy to classify and organize things, physically or mentally. Accepting the uncertainty of my brother’s co-occurrence of mental illness and addiction has been a paramount, unanticipated challenge. For so long family members have been hoping for the proverbial lightbulb to turn on in Alex’s mind, his final pivot toward a healed, “normal” life. Alex inspires me to reconsider normalcy, expectations, and success, because those things look different for every person. For my brother, it’s a sister who accepts and loves him from 1500 miles away. As if we were sitting next to each other, it is a virtual embrace, and for now it’s the best we can do.

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On Mental Illness and Weather

At the moment I write this, buckets of rain are pounding the hot cement in Manhattan. Thunder that sounds like an amplified bowling alley is roaring the background – a rarity and special treat for a Texan who misses the drama and majesty of true thunderstorms. Like most people, I don’t want to go outside and get soaked. Unlike most people, I am delighted to be shut indoors, limited to the offerings of the apartment in which I reside. I am at peace.

Depression makes me a bit of a homebody, somebody who needs to refresh and be alone at home after limited engagements, like an old iPhone battery desperate for a charge after only a few hours of use. When the weather is terrible, my natural inclination is affirmed by circumstance and the pressure to perform is absolved. Unsavory weather limits options for activities, and my self-imposed pressure melts away. It’s okay to be indoors, to be in my feelings. There is no need to explain why I stayed in all day, because most people probably did, too. For an average person it may have been the weather, but for me it is the depression I live with like weights tied to my ankles.

On sunny days I am often gripped with guilt and dread. If I’ve slept too long, I feel guilty. If I don’t have a hyper-productive day that includes an outdoor galivant, I feel like a fraud just waiting to be found out by a daily itinerary inspector who doesn’t exist. I do take pleasure in being outdoors at times. My ideal getaway is a peaceful beach vacation, after all. But, it’s the getting home I look forward to: stripping off sticky or dirty clothes to put on something clean and comfortable, hugging the peaceful golden retrievers I live with, unpacking what I brought home, eating something waste-free and healthful I make with my own hands, cracking a book, settling in to watch a TV show I’ve been eager to see, being near Rick.

If rain is special to me, you may have correctly concluded that winter in New York City is sacred. The dirty snow banks pile up and street corners become mysterious lakes of melted snow, depths unknown. I outwardly commiserate with other New Yorkers about never-ending winter and join the chorus of deep desire for spring and summer. Secretly, this time is when I feel safest, un-judged, and mentally at peace. There is no pressure, only justification in holing up in the warmth and safety of my shoebox that sits under and on top of other shoeboxes filled with other humans doing the same. For them, it may be because of the weather. For me, I can just be, and I don’t have to explain anything.

5 Ways to Support Someone Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder

1. Make it clear to you are there for them, but do not press.

Unfortunately, there is still negative stigma surrounding mental health today, and Bipolar Disorder is at the forefront of misunderstanding and insensitivity. Chalking up regular but perhaps undesirable behaviors as “bipolar” has crept into social jargon, and this general ignorance may make the diagnosis particularly challenging for your loved one to accept and embrace. Make yourself available to the person but gauge and respect their comfort (or lack thereof) discussing the new diagnosis.

2. Be patient.

When someone is diagnosed with any sort of mental incapacitation, not only may it take time to accept and embrace the newfound diagnosis but the pharmacological aspect may be a lengthy journey, too. One of the best ways to support your loved one through the process of new diagnosis, medication, and therapy is to be patient. It’s important to know that finding the right meds can take several tries to get right, and while it may feel tedious to the people around the person with Bipolar Disorder, trust that the medicinal process is much more taxing on the person ingesting the meds.

3. Understand that there may be backtracking.

Like any kind of healing or medical adjustment, there may be times that feel like one step forward, two steps back, whether it’s with therapy, work, relationships, or meds. Remember that the person with Bipolar Disorder is along for that tiring ride, too. Work hard to be empathic and gracious toward the person going through this transition, as there is not a one-size-fits-all solution and it may take some time.

4. Be respectful to the person diagnosed.

Before someone very close to me was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, being around them was like walking on eggshells. That was over ten years ago and we’re now able to openly discuss what things were like before the diagnosis. It’s important to approach your loved one with respect, and not harp on old behaviors that were perhaps undesirable. Remember, the person diagnosed was previously living with an undiagnosed mental illness and that is hard enough. It’s not fair to take shots at someone who is newly healing and trying to live a better life post-diagnosis.

5. Champion respect for Bipolar Disorder.

If you hear someone describing another person’s behavior as “bipolar” as a mean write-off opposed to an actual allusion to Bipolar Disorder, kindly let that person know their misnomer is hurtful towards those with Bipolar Disorder and the people who love them. This is one way to champion respect for your newly diagnosed loved one while maintaining privacy they may wish to have.