07 Nov Changing The Game Of Stigma
My journey with bipolar disorder began strangely. In many ways, it’s still not a part of my life. Or rather, I should specify, it is not really a part of the people’s lives who surround me. I’m not saying you need to be bipolar to let it be a part of your life. It starts with the acknowledgement of the condition. I’m not saying every person who crosses me needs to know what being bipolar means. For those who end up reading this, you might have known me as a feminist. But I’d also like to think I’m pro mental health and I support the cause of breaking down the stigma that exists in the society about mental illnesses.
Just imagine this. You and I are 5 year old kids, playing and running around with all the innocence a child can possibly have. While running around, I fall down and I graze my knee badly. It starts bleeding profusely. While some adult cleans the wound, I am sobbing hopeless and describing how red and painful the wound is. I would like to think of that wound as bipolar disorder. When it affects you, it wrecks you. But do you have an adult supervisor to clean your wounds? Do you have a support system to help you pick yourself up? Does that boy you were playing with think you are a sissy to play with because you fell down and cried miserably? Do I worry that tomorrow you may think of me as crazy and incapable of functioning normally now that you know some of my demons?
I’ve had my struggles during my childhood, connecting to my emotional side. But some time during my mid-teens, the flood gates opened. It started as one night of crying over some silly boy troubles. The next day I cried because there was too much school work. The day after that I cried because I thought I didn’t have enough friends. Following that day I cried about not passing my tests. And it went on like this for a while. I did not know a person was capable of storing so much water in their bodies to release at will. I failed to realise that it wasn’t so much as crying at will as crying at everything. I remember this one particular day. It was raining heavily outside, and I was trying to cram for a Biology test. The good student that I was trying to be, every time a random thought popped into my head I banished it and continued flipping pages. And in between so much intense studying, my pen fell down. I looked down at it. I wanted to pick it up. I mean, after all, how hard is it to pick up a pen? But there was a lump forming in my throat imagining myself picking up the pen. Before I knew it, I was in tears and I could not even pick up the pen. It took me hours before I could calm down and go back to the pen and my studies.
It’s so silly, to be crying about a pen. So I questioned that incident. Why did I cry? That question has taken me nearly 8 years to answer. I did not know I was bipolar back then. I did not even qualify as a person who could be bipolar back then. There were a series of fortunate events, (and other unfortunate ones) in my life the next few years. Fast forwarding to my time after my A levels, I returned back to India. The day before the results released, I sat my parents down and told them very seriously, “I don’t think I did well. I mean I know I’ll pass, but please do not expect As, or even Bs for the matter.” Can you fathom what the parents of a straight As student might think is wrong with you at that point? (I have to admit though, it had been a while since I had renounced my title as a straight As student. I just studied to get by.) So the results came and I mostly had As with a few Bs dotted. I was in complete shock. My brain could not even process that. My parents believed my grades were right and I could not. I knew I had put in the required amount of work. I knew I had done my part with the exams. But still I couldn’t believe how “lucky” I had gotten with my grades. I didn’t apply to any conventional university for any conventional courses. I probably was not thinking straight. I had a long break post A levels. I sank into a routine of waking up late, surfing the internet into oblivion, taking naps, and heading back to sleep at night. I had become a ghost. When my parents weren’t around, I cried and cried my heart out. I was miserable. I was away from my friends. I was not going to the same university as them for sure. I hated all these changes.
One day, I came across this piece on tumblr. As you know, the great place that tumblr is, it also is a cave with lots of weapons stashed in it. Someone said, when they were in pain, they cut to give themself a physical reason to associate the pain with. Because they didn’t know where that pain was coming from. So that night, I had my first date with a pair of blunt scissors. Thankfully, I did not do much damage. But the next morning, I woke up feeling even worse. Every time I moved, it pained, physically. Add that to my emotional pain. I couldn’t take it anymore. So I told my mother very slowly that I was in pain. I don’t know why she never asked me about it before. I mean, did she know something was off? Did she just assume my behaviour was normal for me? She took me to see someone. I still do not know what his qualification is.
That meeting was the beginning of the end. He commented on my appearance, and that felt like a slap on my face. Something about how I’m young and I need to be more energetic and a bad analogy to something else. So from there, I went on to see another person.
Now, this one was a doctor. I wanted for half an hour for my turn to come. I went in, he asked me a few questions and then declared I had clinical OCD (which I had self-diagnosed myself earlier with), wrote down a bunch of medications and sent me out. One month later and four visits with a psychotherapist later, I would have to meet with him again.
And so, the next few months, my anxiety increased, my compulsions decreased , but my sadness increased tremendously. I had so much anxiety that they had to prescribe SOS anxiety medications for me to be able to function normally. For example, if I was in class and I felt my anxiety levels going through the roof, I had to take a tablet or let the whole class see me have an anxiety breakdown.
My anxiety progressively kept getting worse. One day, I wasn’t able to calm down at all after two tablets. It felt like hours but my body and mind could just not calm down. So my befuddled brain tells my fingers to pop all the pills in the strip in my mouth. The next thing I know, my body starts to convulse. Praise be to the Lord, because in the little clear space my brain had left, I managed to call someone, tell then how I was feeling and asked them what I needed to do to get better. I was told to go to the nearest ER and get my stomach pumped. I was scared beyond belief. And at that point, driving myself there was the fast way of getting there. Word of advice to myself and everyone else, please only operate machinery of any sort only if all your senses are working well. So I had a mini holiday at the hospital that week.
This event raised a lot of questions in my family. One thing led to another and they increased my medications. This time, I was taking medications for depression. Apparently, I was clinically depressed. You need to understand that while all this drama was happening in my life, my studies were barely progressing. So I thought of quitting that course, and rethinking my strategy. I was thinking of applying abroad. And I finally managed to convince my therapist, my parents and my family that I was capable of handling myself should I make it abroad. And so I started preparing my portfolio and application. I got a small respite, momentary happiness that my career was going somewhere finally. So for one month, while I was happy doing this, a whole bunch of people were conspiring behind my back.
It turned out, they only let me apply to give me feeling of hope, however short lived it may be. There were never going to let me go. No, they would have me right under their noses, monitoring my miserable life. When I finally found out the truth, I was shattered. Why was I leading life filled with lies? What did I have left to do in life now? I lost interest in everything and everybody. I would barely speak two sentences in a day. I could not eat anything. I constantly cried, it didn’t really matter whether I was alone or not. Now, this is where the lines between reality and fiction blur. Since I have lost my ability to place my trust in anyone, I cannot believe anyone’s version of this story. But I also understand that this led to my first psychotic episode. I was put in a neuropsychiatric hospital (aka, mental hospital). I can barely recollect anything from that time. All I remember is someone poking me with needles. Me crying. Me hallucinating crazy things. Me remembering the crazy hallucinations and feeling scared. I have a few pictures from this period. I look perfectly fine, if not better than usual. They gave me a lot of medications. Medications that made me forget who I was or what I was doing. Medication who’s side effects included depression and suicidal tendencies. This is when I was told I was bipolar. And that I was wrongly diagnosed as having clinical depression.
Many full moons later, here I am today. My family still refuses to believe what the doctors told me. With the support of a few people in the family, I managed to abruptly stop my medications, reeling under their side effects and withdrawl symptoms for over a year. I think, if my family were ready to accept my illness, my life would be a lot simpler. I wouldn’t have to navigate dark roads alone. Because I definitely don’t risk taking my friends there for the sake of their own sanity. My life has become a struggle, living life has become a chore. I think, with better support and better facilities, it might be easier to handle. Which is why it is so necessary to break the stigma. I am barely holding it together.
I have now been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder as well. I manage to save some money to get myself to my psychiatrist every once in a while. But I have shifted away from home now and working on my own (reasons next paragraph), barely making rent and living expenses. I wish I made enough to see a physicshiatrist to get the help I need, definitely on top of my to do list. Always living with the fear that I will be hospitalised because of bipolar disorder, I won’t have the money to pay for it, plus I can’t return to the work I do now because it got disrupted and I couldn’t meet the deadlines. It’s a scary world.
So the reason I have OCD is because my mother has OCD. It’s not something that’s genetic and I was not born with it. However, I did grow up in an unusually strict household. When I say strict, yes it was about discipline. But it was not the discipline to do homework on time, or sleep on time, or wake up early. It was the discipline to wash and dry dishes in a multi-step process, the discipline to eat out of a plate in a certain order, it was the discipline to always hold pencil sharpenings and eraser dust so they do not scatter in places, it was the discipline to pack my bag in a certain way, it was the discipline to tie my shoelaces a certain way. I can go on, this never ends. I grew up in a household with both my parents showcasing strong paranoia, and raised their kid with that paranoia as the driving force. They are extremely sad souls, and struggled to show love and affection. I grew up being alone in my room most of the time. I can count on one hand, that is how many times I have gone out to play with friends. I can count on one hand, that is how many childhood friends I have had. It has been an extremely hard process breaking away from everything I know and have learnt growing up. But I see what this has done to my parents. I do not want to be like them, or grow up to be that way. I was fortunate enough to move away from home at the age of 15. This gave me an opportunity to relearn everything in life. But it’s hard. I always have a romanticised notion of what I wish my family were like, but the reality of the situation at home saddens me. It’s best to move away from it all.