From a very young age, my Bipolar mind obsessed and ruminated with the power and relentlessness of an infinite number of John Henry’s pounding their sledge-hammers mercilessly inside my head. Sleep, precious sleep, was my only reprieve.

One particular rumination that inflicted its torture the most frequently and forcefully was the belief that I would end up with a mental illness, incapable of functioning in society. At least not in the way that my family of origin had modelled to me that I HAD to function.

An inverse Panglossian “futurization” in which I would become dysfunctional, impoverished, homeless, and institutionalized, dogged me mercilessly. This was THE worst case scenario for the child of competitive, upwardly mobile Middle Class perfectionists. A child who was tacitly expected to not only achieve the “White Picket Fence American Dream,” but also to be a “stellar performer” in all endeavors.

Anything less, in my young, vulnerable mind that had been severely warped by grossly misguided “programming,” would be abject failure.

And growing up hearing that “war was good because it got rid of undesirables,” what child wouldn’t be terrified of becoming one of those “undesirables?”

As a child with a Bipolar mind (undiagnosed), one of my primary ways of coping when I was anxious or afraid was to let my thought process take its natural course by ruminating and obsessing. It was both “normal” and escapist.

This maelstrom of swirling toxic circumstances continued rotating and gaining momentum, rapidly accelerating with each passing year. My first Major Bipolar Depressive Episode descended as the crescendo of my terror sprung forth in my first semester of college. I nearly ran and starved myself to death with compulsive distance running and food restriction. All the while my mind continued to torture me with the obsession that I “would become” mentally ill, and join the “detritus of society.”

And with my sheltered, suburban, “normal” upbringing, my view of the mentally ill in 1986 was through a severely stigmatizing lens. A lens through which many people probably still see “us” today.

I was convinced that I was going to end up like one of the poor souls in the images below. Confined to a soul-crushingly barren, depressing, empathy-deficient institution with limited to no human interaction. A place so devoid of love even Jesus would have wept there and where all who entered had hope stripped from them before they could even abandon it.

I thought of “us” as violent, incompetent, unreasonable, deranged, incapable, unsociable, and disposable people. Two dimensional caricatures, like Jack Torrance in The Shining. Or Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Or one of the many denizens of the institution on Shutter Island.

After all, my paternal grandfather had been committed to the Missouri State Mental Hospital, back when that sort of thing was still done. And the last several years of his life consisted of endless hours seated in a decrepit rocking chair, chain smoking unfiltered Lucky Strikes and reading dime-store Louis L’Amour Westerns. Disposable, see?

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest provided my template for how all of “us” looked, thought, and acted. “”Those people” seemed subhuman to me, and the idea of becoming one of “them” seemed a fate worse than death.

But, the joke was on me! I became, and still am, one of them. And we aren’t any more violent than anyone else. We aren’t incompetent. We aren’t deranged. We aren’t incapable. We aren’t unsociable. And even those amongst us who are institutionalized or homeless because their illness is so severe that they can’t function in society without more assistance than they’ve received are NOT disposable.

I grew up with the belief that people with a mental illness are “less than” and a burden on society. Today, I love and embrace all who suffer from a mental illness, including myself.

I have spent the last 26 years working diligently to stay functional, and at times was so symptomatic that it took significant courage on my part just to continue suiting up and showing up for life’s simple day to day tasks. I have been blessed with the tools and support to thrive in this world, despite my Bipolar Disorder and all the tribulations that come with it. With God’s help, and a strong support network, I have proven my demons wrong -about all of those with a mental illness. Including me.

Was it a cruel twist of fate that my life turned out this way?

Was it God playing a perverse joke?

Or maybe it was simply life teaching me a painful yet valuable lesson.

Whatever the case may be, the trials by fire and my serious mental illness led me have experiences and to take actions that have forged me into a better person….


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