Life in First Person: Breaking the Chains of Denial
Text: Candis McDow
As a child, my views on mental health were simple and straight to the point. There were certain kids in school that needed extra attention. Some acted out. Some couldn't talk and made weird noises. Some could even hear voices and talked to themselves. They were different, but not to be targeted or made fun of, at least not in my household. Still, I harbored a fear whenever they got too close because of the unknown, and ironically the unknown is what blew up my entire world.
August 2014 knocked me completely off my feet and knees so bad that I could only lie down and cry. A diagnosis of bipolar I disorder after two failed suicide attempts felt like the equivalent of amputating every vital organ at once. It seemed I had lost it all. There was no instruction manual, no rubric or guide. Just a huge burden that I had no idea how to cope with or overcome. I felt so alone and hopeless, continuously asking “Why me?” All my life I’d tried to do the right things, and now this. Even after spending a week and a half in a behavioral health center I still wasn’t convinced I was bipolar. I just felt like I was there to encourage people, but that was the mania talking. Denial had the best of me.
I temporarily subscribed to the idea that mental illness is something to be ashamed of and hidden. Initially, my family and I rejected the diagnosis, as I had no prior signs of being bipolar growing up. We all felt I had a negative reaction to a high dosage of steroids I was prescribed to cure small insect bites that I got during a Florida family vacation. But after experiencing a host of emotions consecutively, my doubts of being misdiagnosed faded rather quickly. One minute I’d be happy and singing, maybe even cracking jokes, and the next I’d be sad and crying. In the very next moment, I’d be upset over the most minute thing.
My entire life I’d been known as the smart girl. Honor roll, Principal’s list, Citizenship Award, and the Dean’s list were accolades I was proud to have with my name on. Now suddenly, all I felt was shame. I was ashamed that mental illness would now be attached to my name for life. I couldn’t escape it, and the ugly truth would always be right there in my face every time I opened my eyes. Who would care about me having a bachelor’s degree now that I’m bipolar? What kind of job could I obtain if the employer labeled me as dumb, stupid or incompetent?
Depression instantly swallowed me whole. And suddenly, all of my dreams and aspirations I’d looked forward to attaining had no foundation. Who’d wanna marry me? I’m gonna have this for life. I want to have kids, but how can I with all of this medication I’m taking? How can I live on my own if I can’t work because all I do is
sleep and eat all day because of the medication? It seemed impossible to lead a productive, and more importantly, happy life. There was no one to relate to. No one to reassure me that I hadn't been dealt a life sentence of agony. So my mom and I decided we only had one choice, and that choice saved my life-- we educated ourselves.
No longer was there room for denial because I needed to get back to me, and whatever it took to get there is all I was focused on. A breakdown in the garage knocked every inkling of denial out of my system and I took the initiative-- with my mom by my side--
and scheduled a psychiatrist visit at an outpatient facility. And as scary as it was, I’m glad I didn't allow denial to keep me. Had I let it keep me, I wouldn’t be writing this article, living my dream. I’d be stuck.
Today I can proudly say life is grand. In August I will be embarking on year five of recovery without relapse. For me, recovery means living with a purpose. It’s important for me to celebrate each successful year of recovery because relapses could happen at any time. The medication could stop working all of a sudden, or a person could simply stop taking the medication because they feel they don’t need it. Most relapses can be extremely dangerous because, depending on the diagnosis, a person can spiral out of control in mania, and people around them won’t know. When I was manic I felt like I could do anything. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I talked extremely fast, and I felt I could work anywhere and create my own business.
I am not cured, and just because I take my medication daily and regularly see my psychiatrist and therapist doesn't mean that everything is back to “normal.” In fact, I despise the word normal now. Normal doesn’t exist just as perfect doesn't. As a person living with a mental illness, I have to push myself harder than the average person. It’s a struggle to get out of bed and get motivated, but I do it. It takes me longer to do things I could breeze through four years ago. But I’ve grown to learn that it’s okay, as long as it eventually gets done.
I’ve been told the only constant in life is change, which is why I no longer resist what God has for me. I will dedicate my life to helping peers with mental illness and hopefully, inspire them to go after their dreams by leading by example. I hope that my story will encourage others to allow nothing or no one to stop them on their journey to happiness and greatness. I wish to eliminate all shame and hidden truths and be a voice for those suffering in silence. I want to make an impact, starting with myself. So instead of asking “Why me?” I now say “Why not me?”