But I’m Not Really Sick Unless I’m Depressed!

I was trying to explain to my mom how confusing illness is when you’re bipolar. Last week I was diagnosed with bronchitis, and this week we’ve added reactive mono and mycoplasma pneumonia (a mild form of pneumonia). And all this time I really haven’t thought I’ve been that sick. Sure, I’ve been super-tired. Sure, I’m out of breath if I so much as walk from the bedroom to the den. And if somehow I venture to take a deep breath, I have a cough that sounds like Dementors are sucking the bottom of my lungs for my soul.

But I’m in a decent mood. So I can’t possibly be sick.

For so much of my life, my sickness was depression. Exhaustion that rivals and sometimes beats (hands down!) mono. Muscle aches and body pains with symptoms that mimic ones associated with numerous other illnesses including chronic fatigue, hypo- or hyperthyroidism, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus among others.

Except depression’s body aches and pains take place in a world where the Dementors needn’t bother to suck my soul; they already rule the world. Not just my world. The world.

In the Dementors’ world, the relationship to my physical body became surreal. For years there was inevitable confusion, when I was first coming down with something, about whether I was really depressed instead of sick. Later, once my meds got resolved and major depression became a stranger, my body, ill—but without depression—still lives under its shadow, unsure how seriously to treat physical symptoms not lodged within the Dementors’ world.

Stigma, Story, and Solidarity

Isolated blackboard with periodic table, Lithium

Several years ago, when I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I didn’t mind sharing my story with others. I was struggling with horrible symptoms, due in no small part to being prescribed the wrong meds, and I sought community–both for encouragement and to encourage others. I was a grad student in a department very tolerant of mental illness; indeed, some faculty and students still held a romantic notion of the link between genius and mental illness.

But as I found the right medication and my symptoms receded, I found myself less vocal. I felt I was now a “normal” person–or at least acted like one. When I left grad school, I said even less unless I knew I was in a “safe” environment to do so. I was incredibly uneasy about people from high school or college learning that I’d been diagnosed because I didn’t see them as a group of people who would be understanding. I felt the societal stigma of mental illness in a way I hadn’t before.

Something happened near the end of my time in grad school that changed my mind about publicly sharing my story with others, but I’d not been able to make good on it as I’d wished until recently. In February I shared the story of what happened in an article–“Stigma. Own it.”–written for a new blog called Real Spirituality for Real Life. I finally owned my stigma. Publicly. Standing in solidarity with others. And it turns out that having high school and college friends read it wasn’t so scary after all.