So, you’re going along in your life and everything seems fine. Then one day you go into the doctor and you find out that you have a rare condition that has a 15% chance of killing you and only a 50% chance that known treatments will work effectively. Fifteen percent may not sound like a whole lot but in comparison to the whole general public, which has a .012% chance of dying by the same hand, you just found out that you are 1,250x more likely to die from it than everyone else. Cancer is projected to kill approximately 35% of American suffers in 2017. Theres a huge difference between 35% and 15% but when were talking premature deaths, anything over 1% sounds staggering. And it is.
But, the doctor reassures you that you are healthy now and that’s great. He warns you though, if you are not vehemently serious about your health, your path could turn dark quickly and you could end up dead. Now, yes, while the thing killing you is suicide, which is of course a choice, it doesn’t take a doctor to know that if 15% of people with the bipolar diagnosis wind up dead by their own hands, there must be something serious happening. When someone with a heart condition is told to quit drinking and smoking or it will kill them, that is a choice too. It feels like less of a choice because a heart condition is a “real” illness. Unlike bipolar disorder which many believe to be all in ones head. If people with mood disorders would just “man up” or “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” then they would be fine. Only, that’s not the case. I’ve done more “man-ing up” and “bootstrap pulling” than most of the people I know, and I still have this illness. It never goes away, and just because you’re fine one week, doesn’t mean you will be the week after. Every morning is a surprise, never knowing what you’re going to wake up to. Maybe you have a year where everything is going smooth, but add a little stress, a lack of sleep, and no access to your medications, and guess what? You could slide into that 15% in no time.
So here are the exact statistics: 15% with bipolar will die by suicide, which is more than that which die due to depression alone. 50% of those with the diagnosis will attempt suicide at some point, and 80% will contemplate suicide. Also, lets get one thing straight, I’m healthy now. Yea I’ve gained some wait and picked up some bad habits in the last year or two, but I’m not suicidal, nowhere close, but I have been suicidal, and yes, I’ve attempted suicide. I was 14 years old and someone on the internet said some pretty mean things to me and it sent me in a tailspin ending with a bottle of pills in my stomach. So I am part of two of the three statistics I mentioned above. Luckily, I was not successful, which always feels like a strange way to put it. Luckily, I’ve finally found a good medication and have access to it. Luckily, I’m a survior.
But Stephanie, 14 years old is so long ago. Yea, but a year ago wasn’t which is when I wrote my last suicide note. I wrote it just incase, as a “Well then I’ll have it ready” sort of deal. I had a plan, I had a location, I just didn’t have a set date planned or a burden-less option available. During that time I often said to myself, if there was just a door that I could walk through that made it so the physical and financial burdens didn’t end up in my family’s hands, I would walk through it in a heartbeat. The only thing that kept me alive was the fact that I didn’t want to make a mess for my loved ones to have to clean up. I even considered and planned out every post-existing scenario that might come up, and tried to think of as many ways possible that the burden of my death could be lessened. Maybe I could close my bank accounts and put the cash in an envelope with instructions to pay for my funeral with the funds, maybe I could pay off my debt, sell or give away all my belongings so my family didn’t have to do so, maybe I could shut down all my social media and internet usernames. Maybe I could help myself disappear.
In my most haunting memory of that time, I remember not wanting to ruin my perfectly good new mattress by dying on it, so instead I was planning on laying my final rest on a broken lazy boy since my Dad needed to throw it out anyway. It wasn’t long after I had that thought that I finally got the guts to start going to support groups and taking therapy serious again. I knew I was at a low point and that I alone wasn’t going to be able to fix everything. Cut to a year later and I’m living in a different state, successfully running my own business, I’m leading support groups, and I speak on behalf of NAMI about mental health for police officers and first responders. I’m thriving in every way except the weight gain and a few other bad habits, i.e. the smoking habit I picked up while manic. (No one’s perfect.) So what changed? I’d like to say one day I just woke up and decided that my life was worth living but that would be a lie. Its been a long fought battle through the dark wilderness.
So, I should be totally happy right? I turned it around, and I became the hero of my own mono myth. I slayed the internal demons and came out on top. Only, the reality is that at any point I could go back down, or even worse for me, way way up (manic). About 2 months ago the clinic that I was going to was shut down due to flooding. It took me three months just to originally get into the clinic, and now, due to flooding, I couldn’t get a refill on my medications. Almost all the new doctors and clinics I called told me that it would be at least 4 months before I could get in to their offices. Still I was calling my original clinic and leaving messages praying that they would call me back. Finally after 2 weeks without my medications I got a hold of someone from the office. They had been calling back the wrong number but assured me that now that they got a hold of me, someone would be in touch quickly regarding my medications as it was an emergency. Another week went by and nothing. Luckily, I found a brand new clinic that had just opened up and they were able to get me, all before my doctor’s office ever even called me back on the right number.
So, what were those few weeks like without my medication? Hell. I couldn’t concentrate, I slept too much, I could barely shower and my apartment was a disaster. In two weeks I went from having it all together to being completely depressed and my life looked like it had been hit with a wrecking ball. That’s how quickly it can change. Hell, even when I got into the new doctor’s office, the medication they wrote me was not covered by my insurance but I just paid for it out of pocket out of desperation. That first day back on my meds were honestly one of the best days of my life. I cleaned and organized and just, existed again. It was so nice but wow, what a reminder of how thin the rope is that I am tightrope walking on.
I say all this to point out how fragile my health is. I am not a weakling, nor am I writing this for your sympathy. In fact, I don’t want any sympathy from anyone. I just want understanding. I want people to understand how even despite my best efforts, my mental health can run away from me. I want people to understand when I found out that I had a 15% chance of taking my own life due to this illness, I took it very serious. I want people to understand that this is not a made up disease, its not just what you see in TV shows and movies, and it’s very much real. My illness has effected every part of my life: physically, mentally, spiritually, and monetarily. For that reason, I can’t “just move on” and stop talking about it. This illness has shaped me into becoming an advocate. It’s made me more aware of gratitude on a daily basis. It’s made me far more forgiving of myself and others. It’s helped me find my voice. My illness helped make me who I am and I will spend my life fighting for people with this illness because no one asks for this, and surviving it is a triumph.
So, I’m a survivor. No, I didn’t have cancer and I am not saying that this disease could ever be as hard or taxing as cancer is and can be. I know because I watch my aunt slowly die from it at age nine and I know how truly heartbreaking her death was for me and everyone who loved her. So I know I don’t have something quite that serious. But, like cancer, bipolar disorder can take months or years to find the right treatment, and like cancer, you can think you’re healthy again only to be hit with another tumor/episode. But death is death, and death is final and I can’t express in words how grateful I am to live another day. I do not know what I would say to the Stephanie of a year ago, or the Stephanie of age 14 to make them see that life is worth it, but maybe I’m using this opportunity to write a letter to future Stephanie. Maybe she’s who needs to know that she is loved, that its okay to not be okay, and that, yes it will get better. Maybe she forgot how serious this illness can be and she tried to do it alone, out of pride or just not wanting to burden someone. Maybe she needs to know that I get it, this shit is hard. So future Stephanie, if you’re reading this, I love you. And we’re gonna get through this.