You have a secret. A secret you've been keeping for years if not forever from your family, your friends, your boss, and maybe even yourself. A secret so secret that if people knew, it might change your relationships. They might judge you. They might hate you. They might even fear you. You're different. You're weird. You're sick. You've tried to change it, but it's just who you are, and you can't keep it inside any more.
Bipolar. Bi-polar. Manic Depressive. It doesn't get easier the more you say it. You try to use "mood disorder" or "depressed" instead because you think it will have less stigma, but you know the truth. At the moment of diagnosis, you went from being that person -- the eccentric-but-sometimes-sad creative -- to that person: the crazy one. You know, the person on the subway who you avert your eyes from because you don't want them to talk to you or get too close. You're unpredictable. You're freakish. You're scary.
Pretty little cocktails of yellow, pink, and blue pills abound. One to bring you up, one to take you down, one to keep you in the middle. One to wake you and one to put you to sleep, because you sure as hell can't sleep right. Sometimes you stay up all night shopping online, taking photos, or writing for hours on end, creative energy and ideas pulsing through your revved body and mind, and it feels great. Until it doesn't.
Enter the inevitable crash. You're suddenly knocked over by a massive wave of sadness, isolation, self-loathing, and hopelessness. You're left on the floor of the shower trying to breathe through your tears. Sweating, trembling, heart palpitating.
You stop answering your phone, and eventually it stops ringing. Your friends are no longer your friends, except for those select few who won't let you push them away no matter how hard you try. Your family is tired of dealing with it all, and you can't blame them.
You stop going out. You stop taking care of yourself. Can you even remember when you last showered?
Soon you're stuck in your room. Your computer and your TV are your only true friends, an ever-present distraction from reality. You Facebook. You Tweet. You blog. Pretending all the while that you are doing great. You smile for pictures, if you can remember how to smile. Or you use old pictures from times when you were thinner and happier, at least in appearance. If your Facebook world doesn't know, perhaps it isn't real. That's the biggest closet of all these days. Perhaps you are still the smiling go-getter everyone else sees and thinks you are. Perhaps this bipolar thing is temporary or a joke. But you're not laughing.
Things deteriorate. Not leaving the house turns into "a thing." Anxiety, panic attacks, the whole deal. You stop working. You start making bad decisions and staying up through the night again. You're erratic. Impulsive. Possibly even hallucinating or delusional. Are you really being followed?
You stop driving. You stop taking the train.
You stop caring about anything and everything.
You start to think everyone would be better off without you. You feel broken and unfixable, so why go through it all? Why? Things are hopeless. You begin to feel numb or dead inside, so you drink or take drugs, or hurt yourself just to feel something. You think you deserve to be scarred or bruised on the outside to match your damaged insides. You contemplate the ways in which you might find release from the torment of this life.
Then you see your perfect little daughter, your partner, your mother, or your friend, and you remember that you are not alone. You think of how screwed up their lives would be if you made your "great escape." How much your actions affect others. You start to feel guilty for even having the thoughts, which only makes you feel worse.
Frustration. Anger. Guilt. Shame. Sadness. Repeat...
Frustration. Anger. Guilt. Shame. Sadness. Repeat...
Then comes the psychoanalysis and everything else they throw at you -- dietary changes, magnetic and shock therapy, hospitalizations, more meds... You see modest if any results. You're ready to throw in the towel, until one day something happens -- you're listening to Pandora while feeding your kid or walking the dog, when Sam Cooke comes on and sings to you... "It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die, 'cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will."
You feel a shift, and realize you can choose to live. Or at least try. It's not easy. You've been flooded by emotional ups and downs, crying and then laughing maniacally, throwing things, feeling totally out of control. But in this moment, you finally realize that a change might possibly come. Not today, but some day. You were not given a death sentence. You can find a way to own your recovery, stop ignoring advice and stop hiding in that damn closet -- take your meds, see your doctors, and be more self-aware -- you can actually take some control, and start moving in a positive direction. One baby step at a time.
You look around you at the shambles that your life has become, and you see that there are still a few people in your life that find you worth fighting for, and that perhaps you should fight through this for them, and maybe one day you will even do it for yourself. You are strong. You are capable. You are talented. You are worthy of a life worth living. A change will come.
So you get your butt out of bed and make a sandwich. It's a start.
Please note: This account of bipolar disorder does not represent everyone's experience with bipolar. Every experience of mental illness is different, and in many cases more than one illness can coexist. This piece, while primarily about bipolar disorder, also contains elements of Borderline Personality Disorder.
Please join Danielle in the fight to raise mental illness awareness and eradicate stigma. From the depths of her personal struggle, she started a non-profit called Broken Light Collective to help people living with or affected by mental illness through the use of photography and the arts. Photography was one tool that helped her get out of bed and back on her feet. If you are interested in participating in the online or live gallery exhibits or making a much needed donation to help Broken Light Collective get up and running as a non-profit, please visit BrokenLightCollective.com. Together, we will make the change come!
Powerful Photos by People w/Mental Illness
Photo courtesy Danielle Hark Photography
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.