Red Flags

My struggle with mental health has been a rather long saga. At eight years old, inadequacy crashed into me like an assaultive wave. Distinct self-hatred plagued me for years, and blossomed into a cut on my wrist and bruises on my upper thighs. The wounds became increasingly hard to hide as time went on, and at 15 I was diagnosed with major chronic depression and anxiety. I went on medication and settled in to wait out the storm. Two years later, it was clear this wasn’t working. Life had become a melancholy blur punctuated by periods of mania. No one noticed. I had always been a pleasant kind of kid; a class clown, a good student, popular, an athlete. I would be sitting with friends excitedly making everyone laugh while blood was still leaking from bandages on my wrist. I would win awards for essays that I had written when I had a bottle of pills on desk beside my laptop. Nothing was good enough, and I pushed myself to the edge, and often right over it. I would force myself into periods of mania simply because I needed to do everything perfectly. But from the outside everything was being done perfectly.  I was an unlikely suspect, and my actions didn’t raise any “red flags”. Eventually everything culminated, and I found myself standing on the other side of the rail at Lions Gate Bridge. [ I am forever grateful to my friend that called the police that night. It had not been my first attempt, and whereas most people would have rolled their eyes, this person understood the severity of the situation and acted quickly. I may have resented it at first, but this person saved my life. Always indebted to them.]

I was committed to a high security mental facility, and things began to change. They were so open about mental illness, and it made me feel something I had craved– “normal”. The doctors and volunteers at the hospital made me understand that what I was experiencing wasn’t weakness, nor was it particularly rare. I had hit rock bottom, and was tired of digging myself a new hole to fall into. I stopped resisting help and hiding my struggles; I opened up completely and wholly.  After some time I was diagnosed properly with bipolar disorder. I suppose I had always known this, but couldn’t fully process it. I hid any symptoms that could’ve have linked me to the disorder, pushed it to the back of my mind and told myself, “you are not crazy, don’t let them label you as such”. I was trying to avoid the stigmas of bipolar; the split-personality, fundamentally insane, female hysteria stereotypes that are often associated with the disorder. I had actively worked against my healing process for years in an attempt to maintain an illusion of the ever-unattainable “normal”.

Such is the situation with many people struggling with mental illness. We define “red flags” on age-old clichés that do not represent the true nature of mental illness. It is not always the sullen, black-clad teen. It’s the prom queen, the quarterback, the stay at home mom, the high profile investment banker. People assumed because I was high functioning that I was fine, and no one bothered to look deeper because doing so still makes most people uncomfortable. Everyone wants to believe there is nothing more to it; no one likes to talk about mental health. There is no cookie-cutter formula for how a person suffering will act, and we need to stop assuming it is as simple as that. Not only to be people ignore symptoms, but they dismiss diagnoses. It is unacceptable that the hardest step of dealing with mental illness is asking for help. It is unacceptable that asking for help is such a formal and inaccessible process. It is unacceptable that once you’ve sought out help, many people and institutions still don’t recognize mental illness as a valid criteria of health.

The hospital presented an atmosphere free of these prejudices, taboos, and stigmas. They treated me as if I had a routine condition that needed to be regularly discussed and assessed. When I left, I was a very different person. Flanked with a newfound assertiveness, I waged a war against the beast that had been tormenting me for so long. No longer would I seek for failure even amidst a victory. With two hands grasped firmly around the reigns, I took control of the wild insecurities that had controlled me for far too long. I went on new meds, saw new doctors, and created a new routine that propped my mental health. I asked for help when I needed it. I defined my own red flags. I told people when I was feeling low. Though things are still incredibly difficult, I no longer wake up to the fear of living through the day. Now, I wake up to the knowledge that each day will be a struggle, but one that I refuse to stand down from. 

About The Author:

The author of this blog would prefer to remain anonymous.