A long time reader of mine recently pointed me towards a blog post written by an in recovery mentally ill woman. The reason she pointed it out to me is because the author, Leah Dick, touched on many of the points I regularly encourage and promote about what it means to recover, find wellness, function in a relationship with a mentally ill person, and thrive in life with a mental illness. With Leah’s permission, I am linking out to her post “An Open Letter from a Mentally Ill Woman to the Man Who Wants to Date Her”. I would encourage you to read her post either before or after reading this post. Much of what I will discuss in this post will be what I see in her writing and how it relates to the journey.
Before I dive into that, I’m assuming you’ll end up reading this post, Leah. Congratulations on your recovery, continued work at recovery, and four years of being clean! Never forget how far you’ve come when your mind grows dark. I know how hard it can be as someone who has walked similar paths.
It is no secret that I love blunt, direct people and encourage more people to discuss what is on their minds. Why? Communication is essential to the success of any relationship. It is even MORE IMPORTANT when you are trying to be in a relationship involving mental illness. Case in point, I recently had a commenter tell me that she was offended that I would suggest a loved one be direct and tell their partner if the person was acting unstable. That commenter’s response was “I would be infuriated if they did that.”
And what good would that do? How is that person’s loved ones supposed to communicate that said commenter is unwell if she happens to miss it? No one gets self-management 100% perfect. Compare that to Leah’s demeanor and approach. In her post, she clearly states that she understands what she needs to do to manage and that she is at a point in her recovery process where a majority of the work is maintenance. There’s no hints at anger about her situation or rebelling against the idea that she is mentally ill, that it can have a drastic affect on her perception. Leah clearly states what pitfalls a potential suitor is going to experience by acknowledging and putting forward the challenges she faces.
In my experience, a person like Leah wouldn’t respond with anger at the suggestion. Her words suggest that she is at peace with her challenges and deals with them in a very direct way. On the other hand, if things were going poorly for someone who did have strong management practices, they may respond with anger at the suggestion because reactions while unwell aren’t always rational. But when Leah finds a partner she can trust, who she knows has a decent understanding of who she is, that person’s words can serve as another anchor to reality if she was drifting unwell without realizing it.
The aforementioned commenter is a victim to a very common pollutant in internet advocacy spaces. That is the idea that any suggestion of potential instability if a Bipolar person is angry or sad should be taken with offense. Assuming the loved ones involved are not toxic assholes themselves, they will come to understand the differences between unwellness and emotions if their mentally ill loved one helps them understand the difference. And if they are toxic assholes, then it doesn’t matter what you do or say to those people, they aren’t going to be a help. So the idea that “oh I should be angry if someone suggests I’m unwell” just makes it harder for a person like that commenter to utilize their support network.
Leah’s open letter addresses quite a bit of the idiocy that surrounds romanticizing mental illness. From the presumably damaged man who thought that her former habit of “injecting opiates was ‘kind of hot’” to the misinformed notion that “better does not mean cured”. Leah rightfully points out that wellness and recovery are a lifetime commitment. It’s a work in progress. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Even though Leah acknowledges she still faces many problems relating to intimacy and security; she is fully aware of her hurdles and works to overcome them. It doesn’t mean getting them right 100% of the time. The fact that she can look at them objectively and identify them as problems gives her a significant edge in actually overcoming them.
And the buzzwords and well-intentioned ass-patting! I laughed when she pointed out that buzzwords like “brave” and “strong” come up when she is trying to discuss these things; and that she smiles and changes the subject.
I do a similar thing, except my strategy is to thank the person for their kind words and then ask the person about something that interests them. It quickly shifts their focus away from that line of thinking. (And works very well, Leah! Feel free to use it.)
I’m no better than anyone else. Never have been. Never will be. I’m using the hand I was dealt in a way that I feel makes the most of it. Plus, arrogance is a major hypomanic symptom for me. If I start getting too far up my own ass about myself, it’s a pretty solid indicator that I’m starting to escalate.
And then there is the statement that she hears, “Oh, but you’re not crazy. Don’t say that.” The version I usually get is “You don’t seem Bipolar.” Same thing, different words. My response is typically “How do Bipolar people seem?” or “What is crazy?” It’s funny to me how so many people have such solid opinions on concepts they can’t define. They have this intangible idea in their mind of what Bipolar Disorder or mental illness is supposed to be; but they don’t actually know how the medical industry defines it for the purpose of separating insanity from quirkiness.
A Powerful Phrase
A phrase that Leah bolded in her text is worth drawing attention to. Hell, I’ll even bold it too.
“I want you to see me as a whole person, not just as my mental illness and not without it.”
I find myself telling people versions of this constantly. To the mentally ill struggling to find an identity without their mental illness and avoid it. To the loved ones of mentally ill people who don’t think it should ever affect them. To the point who think that they can isolate themselves, protecting those around them from any potential damage the mental illness can cause.
It’s part of us. It’s one facet of the entire picture. We must each find peace and a way to cope that makes sense to us as individuals. I am a loud and vocal proponent of working with the mental health professionals to find success. I feel this is an essential component of pursuing wellness, whether it is through therapy or medication. But still, there are nuances that are important to each of us as individuals.
Leah mentions that she got her tattoos in her more foolhardy days. I did not. My forearm pieces mean many things to me. At the deepest level, they are both there to remind me of the paths I’ve already walked and managed to survive. Even though I manage well today, Bipolar-Depression is a serious problem for me. As I get older, I am sure that I will end up warring with suicidal thoughts again. One serves as a reminder of the suicide attempts I am lucky to have come through. The other serves to remind me of my dedication to advocacy work; the people struggling to understand and find their own path.
The people I’ve discussed this with seem to think it’s a bit extreme. That there is no reason for me to broadcast I’m Bipolar or battled with depression that regularly took me into suicidal depths. In my mind, it’s no different than discussing what food I like to eat or being stoked for Fallout 4 being released tomorrow (yay!). These things are part of me.
The people who try to treat it like some minor piece of themselves that they can compartmentalize are setting back their own progress. No matter what we do, our mental illness will touch the people we care about, sooner or later. The best thing we can do is acknowledge it, plan for it, and educate our loved ones on how to handle it.
This letter will save you a lot of time if you show it to men who express interest in the future, Leah. In a dip of depression and feeling alone myself, I ended up signing up with an online dating site. I wrote a similar introduction for myself. That unwell thought process ran it’s course pretty quick, but I decided to leave it up just to see how things would go.
I read a few different profiles and it was very amusing to me how veiled most people tried to be with who they are as a person. My curiosity grew on what kind of people would respond to or want to see an introverted, overweight, openly Bipolar man with a broken smile, still working to build his life from the ashes, with a sense of style that falls somewhere around Tres Chic Hobo.
I ended up befriending three other Bipolar women and a handful of normal people who appreciated my bluntness in regards to who I am. It very effectively narrowed the pool to the kind of people I would want to be around on a regular basis. No inane conversations. No waste of money or time. Simple and brutally effective. Probably the most amusing part of that whole ordeal was a multi-page message of advice on “being too blunt and scaring people off”. Appreciated the time the person spent on the message. But in my mind, anyone that would be scared off by a few paragraphs of text probably isn’t going to handle being a part of difficult situations well.
Well, if you have not, I encourage you to head on over and check out Leah’s “An Open Letter from a Mentally Ill Woman to the Man Who Wants to Date Her” and her blog. She doesn’t appear to do a whole lot of writing on mental health, but more on fashion and related subjects. So if that’s your thing, maybe have a look around, give her a follow, or perhaps some warm wishes on her own journey.
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