I first learnt about Bipolar Disorder in psychology class at school. Eighteen years old and without a care in the world, I barely paid attention as the professor outlined that those with Bipolar experience periods of intense depression followed by periods of equally intense and polar opposite mania.
At the time, Bipolar Disorder was little more to me than a condition I needed to know enough about to regurgitate onto the exam paper. And so for the purposes of getting a good grade, I remembered snippets of information like the fact that bipolar mania resulted in reckless behavior that can have disastrous, sometimes even fatal, consequences. I understood the condition academically, but I didn’t consider what it meant to be a person living with bipolar.
That changed when eight years later I was diagnosed bipolar. The fact of mental illness is- as I’m sure is the case with any illness- that you can never truly understand the plight of the one who is battling through it. Try as I may I can’t fully describe the frenetic dizzying high of a manic episode or the crushing debilitating low of a depressive wave. Nor can I describe the havoc these episodes have caused to my personal, social and professional life. Words are too neat and superficial a tool to encapsulate the absolute mess bipolar manifests as. When I was first diagnosed, I felt intense shame for carrying the label “Bipolar”. I felt I had failed. I had failed to be ‘normal’.
A year and a half into my bipolar journey my concept of ‘normal’ has completely transformed. Normal is an empty sweeping term that doesn’t do justice to the complex reality of what it means to be an individual. The term Normal for me has been replaced now by a scale of mental hygiene; each of us falls on different points along that scale at different points in our lives, and it’s up to us to keep a check on where we fall and to act as soon as we find ourselves slipping on that scale.
In Pakistan mental illness is an extremely isolating experience because there’s immense stigma attached. Because there has been so little dialogue around mental health here, we as a society haven’t learnt to look at this aspect of ourselves. When issues, like anxiety or depression for example, arise we have a habit of sweeping them under the rug and carrying on as if everything is Normal. It’s only when things become absolutely unbearable that we succumb to seeking the help we need. My bipolar has changed the way I look at the world, at myself, and most particularly at mental health. I’ve learnt to treat everyone, myself included, with compassion and love. I’ve broken old unhealthy patterns of behavior that I had been unwittingly using as a crutch. I’ve become okay with not being okay. And I’ve realized there is no health without mental health.