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Bipolar Depression – It’s Time to Change the Stigma

Robin Kahler is a patient who was diagnosed with affective bipolar disorder in 1988. She works from her home in Tucson, Arizona, as an ...Read More

I was in a bookstore the other day, a big one, whose name you’d recognize. I scanned the shelves, browsing for anything with a new title that sounded slightly humorous, and then I overheard two customers, who apparently didn’t know one another, discussing people they knew with various illnesses. I kept silent when they mentioned back pain. I shifted my aching legs while they discussed fibromyalgia. But when they began to talk about their friends with bipolar depression, I had to chime in.

“I know a lady with bipolar depression who is always so depressed and suicidal. I feel sorry for her husband.” The woman spoke.

“I know what you mean”, the man said, “I have a lady friend in her fifties and she is miserable all the time with her bipolar depression.”

They spoke for a few minutes about the horrors of bipolar depression and finally I spoke up. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.”

We chatted for a few minutes about life in general and then I announced to them, “I’m bipolar.”

“Oh you can’t be!” The woman actually stepped back in shock.

“Excuse me?” I asked her. I was clearly puzzled. “I assure you, I was diagnosed over twenty years ago, and I am a bipolar patient.” I said.

To my utter amazement, both customers spoke in unison, “But you don’t LOOK bipolar!”

I was taken back and I wondered about their statement. “Exactly what does a bipolar patient LOOK like?” I asked them.

“Well, they look,… you know,…depressed. They don’t stand straight and tall, they don’t dress in pink…they just look dark and gloomy, not at all like you.” The woman continued, “I’ve known a lot of people with bipolar depression, and none of them look like you.”

We talked for a while and then later, at home, I analyzed the encounter in my mind. “People with bipolar depression look dark and gloomy and don’t look like me”…I tossed the thought over for several minutes and I realized that we (who have bipolar) simply must unite and destroy this stigmatism! It has occurred to me that maybe it’s the title; how did you feel when you were first diagnosed? What went through your mind when the doctor said, “You have bipolar depression”. Did you lower your shoulders? Hang your head? Drift off into a corner to feel sorry for yourself?

Or did you say, “Thank goodness I have the name of something I can learn how to deal with?” Maybe the doctors should change the name of the disorder. Maybe it’s time to simply say, “You have a chemical imbalance.”

I asked myself what is it that I do that always makes people react in surprise when I tell them I have bipolar depression? It’s happened so many times over the year’s, I’ve even had medical doctors take a step back in thier office and say, “I would have never guessed such a diagnosis in you.” What do I do that is so different, I wondered. And so I watched myself one day, as if I were examining my actions with a microscope. I realized that maybe my attitude about my disorder is different, because I know my heritage. I know that many people have had bipolar depression, and yet they accomplished a great deal with their lives.

Did you know that Teddy Roosevelt was bipolar? And Winston Churchill, probably Abraham Lincoln, and Mark Twain had the disorder; so did Beethoven, and Florence Nightingale. Jack London, Rosemary Clooney, Richard Dreyfuss, the list is endless. Doctors, explorers, writers, composers. They didn’t crawl into a corner; why should we?

I analyzed my actions. I wake up feeling rather low. I have fibromyalgia, arthritis, and spinal stenosis, among other things, so getting out of bed is a trial in itself. But I give my body that extra push and I climb into the shower and lather up with a fresh, fruity, happy smelling body wash and I think as I lather, “This is my happy soap”. Wash away the aches and pains and depression and towel dry, buffing away any negative thoughts.

I dress in pastel colors; no black or navy or brown in my wardrobe. I brush my teeth and put on a little make-up; nothing too strenuous, just enough to show I care, even when I feel like I don’t. I force myself to eat a nutritious breakfast. It isn’t easy. I’m usually not hungry. I’d rather have a donut, or in my younger years, it may have been a beer. But I force myself to pour out a bowl of Cheerios and top the crisp little circles with colorful fresh fruit. I do a few body stretches, little push-ups against the kitchen counter, some leg stretches. Then I begin to feel almost human, and so I turn on the radio and dance a little to the beat to raise my energy level.

I work at home. I sell antiques online and I write a bit. It’s not always easy to work at home; sometimes it’s tempting to crawl back into bed and pull the covers up over my head, but I force myself to start working. I force myself through-out the day. It isn’t always easy. But when I’m out and about and I hear people say in shock, “YOU can’t be bipolar!” It’s worth it.

Let’s try to do away with the stigma. Bipolar depression isn’t a diagnosis which should cause us to react negatively; we need to react positively. Great people through-out history have had this disorder! It’s nothing to be ashamed of, or feel as though we need to crawl into a depressing, dark corner about.

I wonder though, if maybe some patients abuse the diagnosis. Maybe they use it to try to gain attention or pity. Do they say to a friend or a stranger, “I have bipolar depression.” And the friend reacts, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” And then the conversation turns negative, “Oh it’s such a horrible disorder.” Nag, nag, and then complain; curl your shoulders, hang your head.

It’s time to stop that! Turn the conversation around, “I have bipolar depression and I’m so grateful that I live in this wonderful century, where doctors have found ways to help my chemical imbalance; now I can accomplish my goals.” Please join with me to change the stigma. Hold your head up and straighten those shoulders, even when you don’t feel like it, and soon it will become a habit. It’s not so bad to have a chemical imbalance, look at those who have accomplished much, and take pride in your heritage! Don’t allow others to try to enable you, and label you with weaknesses. Know who you are and feel positive about that knowledge, and use it to accomplish the things you really want to in life. Happiness is a state and you can go there, even with bipolar depression.

Keep Reading By Author Robin Kahler
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