I used to be ashamed of my mental illness. I didn't want to tell anyone, especially my family. I thought they'd laugh at me and think I was weak. Why? Could it be because society still views mental illness as a taboo subject to broach? I still don't get enough support from my family and peers. But, through organizations such as Speak up 4 Mental Health, I am surrounded by beautiful and compassionate advocates who work every day to erase the stigma and discrimination.
Not long ago, I felt utterly hopeless. I have been battling treatment-resistant bipolar disorder most of my life. I have never felt like there was anyone I could express my suffering to. Yes, I still suffer today but I no longer let my illness bring my spirit down and inhibit my immense passion for change.
In August of 2009—during my service in the U.S. Army—I suffered a catatonic episode. I hated my job as a Military Intelligence Analyst. The persistent fear of getting my fellow soldiers killed due to my faulty "intel" drove my anxiety to its highest limit. However, I couldn't just flee the Army because I signed an ironclad contract with Uncle Sam. Alas, I was extremely exhausted from fighting every day to accomplish a mission I didn't believe in. Something had to give.
Alas, I was extremely exhausted from fighting every day to accomplish a mission I didn't believe in. Something had to give.
When the human body cannot decide between a flight-or-fight reactive response it simply freezes. During my catatonic state I could not talk or move but I could hear all of the background chatter of soldiers’ cruel insults about my condition. It was my first taste of the stigma that is so often spoken of in the mental health world.
Although I posed zero danger to my fellow soldiers I was treated like a psychopathic criminal. I was forcefully restrained for many hours. I even had a catheter painfully inserted into my urethra without consent. My pleas to the doctors and security for compassion went unheard. Once they needed to fill my bed with another patient in crisis I was released without ever being screened by a mental health professional.
When I returned to my unit I was told I needed to spend a week in an intensive inpatient psych ward. Once again my personal dignity was denigrated and I was treated like a menace to society. It was there that I was diagnosed with schizophrenia despite never once experiencing psychotic symptoms. However, it meant I was no longer an asset to the U.S. military.
When I was discharged from the Army, I had absolutely no clue what to do with my life. All of the stories my friends told me of their tours of duty filled me with envy. As much as I hated my job in military intelligence I had at least the respect of my family and peers—even strangers who wanted to shake my hand as soon as they saw the uniform. At the same time I knew the Army life wasn't meant for me and my idiosyncratic way of viewing the world. I felt as if I had thrown away any hope of living a meaningful life.
I felt as if I had thrown away any hope of living a meaningful life.
For several years, I meandered through day-to-day living without any motivation for anything greater. I went back to school but I didn't know the reason why. I sought help from various psychotherapists but none of them could save me from a constant and overwhelming sense of existential doom. I simply could not care less about contributing to society or the mental health community.
It wasn't until September 2013 that I met the right therapist—one who just wanted me to be myself. Unlike others who told me what I should be doing with my life she empowered me to seek out what I actually wanted to do. Once I found it I felt as if there was no moving in reverse.
Finally, my negative self-image began to take a turn for the better! After many months of doubt and emotional turmoil I began to see that I was actually pretty damn awesome all along! But I needed a cause to rally my newfound motivation around. That cause should have been obvious from the very beginning.
During this period, my therapist was organizing a club on campus that worked on mental health awareness and engagement with college students. That club was called Active Minds and it would change my life. On the first meeting, we had no clue what we were actually capable of achieving together. What we did need to do immediately was elect a chapter president. Despite lingering self-doubt, I threw my name out in the running. To my surprise I was easily elected!
My ambition knew no limits. What I didn't know at the time was that this would set off the trigger for a major manic episode.
I quickly built Active Minds into a major force on campus. My ambition knew no limits. What I didn't know at the time was that this would set off the trigger for a major manic episode. It would last for two months and end with me crashing into yet another major depression. I was frequently admonished by my advisors for expecting too much from club members and working too feverishly. However, I chose to not care because I believed I would never crash. I sincerely believed I was the foremost powerful mental health advocate in the entire world. I thought I would make millions of dollars from my hard work. When the unfortunate realization came to me that there is not much money at all in mental health I once again felt hopeless. I once again expected to live the rest of my life in abject poverty and constant struggle.
But I know now that not having material wealth is never the end of the world. I know now that it doesn't matter if I profit from things I'm passionate about because I have something that cannot be bought or sold: a life with meaning.
Mental illness is still very much misunderstood among both the medical field and the general public. Unfortunately, I still fight off catatonic and bipolar episodes. I have also been forcefully restrained and medicated again since my initial diagnosis. As an advocate, I now campaign against inhumane treatment of mental health consumers. No one should be mistreated due to a lack of insight. Despite popular opinion, the horrific acts committed by a handful of evil individuals do not define all people living with a mental illness.
Yes, I still suffer today but I no longer let my illness bring my spirit down and inhibit my immense passion for change.
As I reflect on the vicissitudes of my mental illness I am now optimistic for my future. Wholeheartedly, I would not be who I am today if it weren't for all I have experienced throughout my journey. Yes, I still battle with ignorant peers and stereotyping. Yes, I still wait way too long for an appointment with a competent psychiatrist who doesn't just want to prescribe my problems away. But I also now have a therapist who treats me with equality and honors my individuality. I now belong to a network of like-minded advocates who inspire me to do more to further our cause—even when I am too depressed to get out of bed let alone speak in front of a large audience about my illness. I now have a reason to make the most out of every single day I have on this big blue crazy earth.
I have a gift and that gift is to be the voice for all who suffer in silence—for all who suffer discrimination. Most assuredly, the day will come where this abhorrent stigma is eradicated and that day is coming soon!