My mum has always had bipolar disorder, just like I’ve always had blue eyes and freckles on my nose – except maybe the freckles were easier to come to terms with. But unlike freckles, there’s no concealer or quick fix for mental illness. It can’t be covered up and forgotten.
Just as my freckles don’t define me, bipolar doesn’t define my mother. Bipolar doesn’t mean that when my mother is sad, she’s going through a depressive phase. It doesn’t mean that when she stays up late one night, she’s manic. It doesn’t mean that she changes every day, swinging from happy to sad. She’s not some kind of human pendulum.
Bipolar doesn’t mean that you have to talk to my mother like she’s a four-year-old in trouble for drawing on the walls. It doesn’t mean that she’ll break into pieces if you make an offhand comment about some “psycho” customer you served at your job at the supermarket.
Mum is just a woman. She’s got eyes like cerulean skies and hair that stands on end when it rains. She’s a brilliant artist. She sings along to all kinds of music and somehow always knows the lyrics. She’s been given a hard lot in life, but she always makes it work; she’s been a single mum since I was five, and I’ve never missed having a father. Mum is a woman with a killer sense of humor and maybe a little too much compassion for people who don’t deserve it. She’s a woman with a half-completed degree in psychology, which maybe is ironic, because some time before I was born she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
My mother typically goes through medication as quickly as she changes the color of her hair, but right now she isn’t taking any. It’s the same as any illness; without medication the symptoms are worse. But what makes bipolar different from a disease like, say, diabetes is the fact that Mum is ashamed when she shouldn’t be, and it’s shame that makes her skip her meds and slip into depressions that can hang around like a cloud for months.
My mum has bipolar and I’m okay with it. I’m okay talking about it because mental illness needs to be talked about. We need to be educated about it; we need to speak out about it, because there’s no shame in mental illness. The shame lies in refusing to acknowledge that it exists.
I don’t have the answers on how best to treat mental illness. I’m no expert. I’m just a 17-year-old girl with a beautiful mother who is struggling with an illness that is avoided like an elephant in the room. Mental illness exists, and it’s not going anywhere. It affects real people like you, me, and anyone you pass on the street – doctors, farmers, teachers, mothers, fathers, uncles, sons.
Mental illness deserves a voice, but not a voice that is patronizing and condescending. No, it needs a voice that is witty and proud, honest and understanding. People need to know that mental illness isn’t all dark clouds and medicated roads to recovery.
What we need is people to speak out. What we need is to shatter the stigma that is shattering the pride of all kinds of people around the world.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.