I have bipolar. However, what I’m really having a harder time reconciling about myself is being one of those people with bad allergies. Honestly, I just finished coughing my way through the last 8 weeks because I wasn’t going to be a person with allergies like my dad. I’d grown up witnessing a life of wheezing and snorting and handkerchiefs and wanted no part of that identity. After all, I saw what passed as excitement for the weak-of-sinus: breaking out a fresh pack of new, crisp, white handkerchiefs!
So me? Allergies? I’d rather find substitute leaders for Catch Your Breath, the new guided meditation and breathing program I was trying to roll out, than take a Claritin. I was not going to be one of those sorry people who suffer on the most beautiful of days, unable to get through the growing season without clutching onto their antihistamines.
Special note and my apologies for the interruption: This week’s Wellness Wednesday (a column on being whole and healthy I write as the employee wellness specialist for Northern Light Health) is a special, longer edition so that I can add my voice to Northern Light Acadia Hospital’ and The Yellow Tulip Project’s mission to “smash the mental health stigma.” What better time to address an urgent issue made all the more urgent right here in the spring of this extreme period of physical and emotional stress when we are all suffering the effects of the pandemic? And when you consider the extraordinary amount of pressure and responsibility being put on our healthcare providers right now when they are at already record high levels of burnout, there is no clearer signal that we’ve got to change the way we think. We need to get real and honest about the fact that we are human beings with minds that do amazing things — and because of this mental and emotional complexity are sometimes in need of special calibration, like fancy foreign cars. It’s time to start making it okay to be open about our challenges and the experience of being human. Here, I’ll start. (Obviously, I already did, but for writerly hook purposes, I wanted to start right in on the story for social media posting.)
Then finally last week I got so sick of not being able to do my job I broke down and gave Claritin a shot. Overnight my life went from choosing which Ricola flavor I could deal with to just, you know, living. It was a such a relief. Okay, so I have allergies! Okay, so I have bipolar! Just tell me what I have to do about it so I can get back to doing my thing.
Said like that, it actually sounds kind of easy to integrate these human frailties and get on with it. But I know it’s really hard to come to terms with our own vulnerabilities, especially if they are not cool vulnerabilities like bipolar. I kid, of course. Obviously, mental health challenges are among the least cool of human vulnerabilities to out with. After all, what will people think if I admit to having a mind that occasionally gives me a run for my money? It seems wiser to bury that business.
While burying that business may seem the safest course of action, the real crazy thing is that if it was actually okay to talk about, we would all be able to see that everyone’s mind gives them a little run for their money sometimes. Sure, some of ours may occasionally go a little further out there on the spectrum of minds-on-the-run, but that’s just the way it is with the spectrum of absolutely everything. Congestion? We all have it. Distorted thinking? Ditto. Smelly feet? Even babies.
The important thing here is when people are willing to risk acknowledging their vulnerabilities because they can trust their vulnerability will be met with an open heart and open mind, something amazing that helps everyone happens. We all become kind of normal and acceptable. I will never forget how mind-blowingly stunning it was when Princess Di acknowledged that she had bulimia, going so far in one BBC interview to reveal how early in her marriage to Prince Charles on a trip abroad she once, “spent the whole time with my head down the loo.”
With that one honest statement she invited us to picture her being about as humanly vulnerable as you can. She invited us to see how it is not a contradiction to be a bona fide princess and a bona fide real person, literally down on her knees, grappling with what it means to be human.
It’s time for a new way to think about and talk about our minds
What would really help our healthcare providers and all of us a lot right now (and forever after) is if we could de-stigmatize the way we think about mental health so it would be no big deal for any of us, healthcare hero or not, to say, “Man, I really don’t feel good right now. This has been hard. I need to go talk to someone so I can get myself back.” Even just being open with co-workers about how everyone is feeling can be incredibly healing. You know you’re not alone. You know we all cycle through hard periods.
But the only way to de-stigmatize mental health is by making it normal for people to risk talking about their mental health vulnerabilities when they crop up. That means being able to trust people to see us for the whole of who we are instead of forever after scrutinizing our behavior and locking us into a box based on this one piece of information. Not that this particular detail isn’t potentially darn interesting. Of course it is — we’re fascinating and complex creatures! And, of course, it’s only natural to receive that information and think, “hmmm, that might explain things” (and believe me, I say that to myself a lot), which is fine so long as there is just as much open-ness of mind to allow that maybe it doesn’t.
And so what better time than this spring of our pandemic to normalize the fact that our minds need to be cared for, just like our bodies, and that having mental health concerns is as common as having heart disease or an infected hangnail. At any given time, a good 20% of us have some form of chronic mental illness with 1 out of every 25 people having a serious form of it. Yet another 20% of us are going to go through a serious depression at some point over the course of our lives*. And a whole 100% of us have a fully vulnerable mind and brain, open to the entire range of human emotions and functional disruptions. There will be disruptions. Of course there will be.
But to truly pull this de-stigmatizing thing off we’re going to have to wrap our minds around a simple dialectic: that someone can have a mental health issue and still be a functional and contributing human being, that Princess Di can be a princess and have bulimia, and that healthcare providers can be heroes and also need help themselves.
These are hard things to reconcile, but when we think about our life within the familiar narrative line of the hero who is faced with an extraordinary challenge on his/her journey, who struggles mightily, who falls and and fails many times but in the end manages to get back up coming through the experience transformed in important ways, then we can redefine what being a hero actually is. It is locating the courage to be real about the whole of who we are. It is taking care of ourselves when we struggle so we can get back to doing what we are meant to be doing. For me, that means being right here advocating for our wholeness, our health and our happiness through writing stories and articles and developing programs. For you it might mean saving someone’s life or repairing someone’s car or loving well or leading a Girl Scout troop or making art or buying & selling stuff or whatever it is that fills you up and makes sense of your life.
So what do you say, how about this merry month of May we start normalizing the full experience of being human and make it okay to acknowledge we all have minds that need to be cared for? If we free each other up to be real about our very human challenges, then we can all get back to doing our thing and contributing what we’re here to contribute.
I don’t want to leave off on a rah rah, we-can-do-this note that makes any part of having mental health challenges seem easy to deal with or easy to be open about. Bottom line, despite how fun I make it seem, having bipolar sucks, just like having allergies suck and heart disease sucks and infected hangnails suck and going through the fire sucks. For me having bipolar means I live a very deliberate life anchored in routines, daily exercise, meditation, balanced nutrition (with dessert absolutely being part of the balance), regulated sleeping, regulated weight, a managed schedule and a mostly clutter-free and organized environment — all the stabilizing external things that reinforce my internal stability. It means I will seriously limit how much stimulation I’m going to load into any given day or weekend. One event a weekend is enough for this girl who has enough excitement in her head already!
Coming to this understanding about myself and what I need to do has all been part of my hero’s journey and will continue to be. As is probably becoming clear, the hero’s journey is not a pretty one or an easy one but that’s what makes it a hero’s journey. But, to my mind, there is honor in the transformative struggle and it’s not one just special people with mental health challenges face. Everyone has their own vulnerabilities and struggles. In fact, I don’t know one person who isn’t right now who hasn’t gone a fire of some sort. As much as I object to the model, it appears that this is just what goes along with the good stuff. Hopefully, on balance, everyone has had much of that along their way. I know I sure have and continue to.
Mental health stigma-smashing directions
1. Check out the Yellow Tulip Project “Virtual Hope Day.” Through musical performances, poetry and powerful speeches, local teens and community members begin to smash the stigma often associated with mental illness by speaking out about their experiences.
2. Deeply integrate the dialectic: people can be heroes and human beings; princesses can have eating disorders; people can be competent and contribute meaningfully and also have a mental health issue
3. Be honest with yourself about what you are feeling and consult with your care provider or a counselor when you’re not feeling or functioning well so you can get back to doing what you are here to do
4. Be open-of-mind and big-of-heart
5. CAll 911 if you or someone you know needs help immediately
Note: We’re all entitled to our privacy and no one should be pressured into publicly revealing anything about themselves, but at the same time we can support truthfulness in ourselves and others
*Statistics from the National Alliance for Mental Illness