For the past few days, I’ve been feeling a lot of emotional pain and sadness. Why? Well on Saturday night, I was told about someone who had expressed the opinion that I specifically should not have kids because women with bipolar disorder cannot handle pregnancy, childbirth and being a mother. They allegedly “go crazy” and “never recover”. Hearing this felt like a slap in the face. At first, I tried to shrug it off but I couldn’t. It was just so hurtful and opened up some very deep fears about my abilities to be a mother that have been hiding under the surface since my diagnosis. While thoughts of worst-case scenarios around parenting swirled through my head, I could feel my self-esteem crumbling and self-doubt crowding in, replacing the feelings of self-love and positivity that I had been working so hard to cultivate in the past few months.
As I write this, my mood is really low. I have significant physical chest pain, a lack of energy and a general sense of discomfort and restlessness. I actually just feel nauseous and like I want to vomit. I also am experiencing intense feelings of shame, anger, and hatred, all directed at myself. I am so incredibly frustrated that my mental illness is constantly derailing my life and my sense of self. I am just embarrassed about every aspect of myself and the guilt around dragging others into my struggles is overwhelming. I am feeling completely disgusted with myself for opening up the intimate details of my life for everyone to see. I feel like I have opened myself up to judgment from people all over the world, but in particular people I know. I feel so vulnerable and scared to know that my life is being analyzed daily. This fear is manifesting itself into severe depression. I’m sincerely hoping that this is a little blip and I will return to feeling great in a few days. I literally just got approval from my psychiatrist to start job hunting.
While I am upset about the decision to share my experiences with bipolar disorder, I still can’t help doing it because I do know that there are benefits. I have heard from many people that I helped them in a tough spot or inspired them to take care of their own mental health issues. People have also said that they feel less alone. So naturally, I posted on social media about how upset I was because I wanted to start a conversation on the topic of parenting and mental illness. A lot of people were incredibly kind and sent encouraging messages. There was a common theme amongst the message of “haters gonna hate”, “don’t let others bring you down”, “ignore them, they don’t know what they are talking about”, “it’s just one person’s opinion” and other similar phrases.
While these are totally valid thoughts and 100% true, I would like to explain why I can’t simply ignore something someone said, however ill-informed. As much as I want to listen to this sage advice, I also have realized that stigma can be so impactful that one person’s words do have power, at least for me.
Really, it’s not about this one person. Their words were a catalyst for a whole range of feelings and emotions that bubbled to the surface. A friend told me about this Pema Chödrön quote that really resonated and fit in with this idea.
“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
What this person said made me feel really alone and isolated. It made me truly understand and experience how people like me can be seen as separate from “normal” society. I am an “other”. It is considered normal for people to grow up, get jobs, get married and have kids. Many people believe we are on this earth to procreate, to contribute to the circle of life like any other animal. It’s what unites us as creatures of this planet. Of course, not everyone wants kids and that’s totally fine. But that’s not the point. In this context, many people believe me to be outside of this traditional human experience. They believe that people with mental illness should not have kids, both because they can’t be responsible parents and because they might pass on their mental illness to their children.
People with mental illness, even still in this day and age of supposed enlightenment, are often seen as dangerous, weak, irresponsible, lazy, useless, and untrustworthy. They are faced with discrimination everywhere – in healthcare settings, in the workplace and even in relationships. Hearing those hurtful words just made me realize that I will never escape the impact of this mental illness. My bipolar disorder will haunt me everywhere I go. Because I choose to be open about it and display it for the world to see, everyone will know. And in every area of my life, there will be someone who will overanalyze my behaviour and attribute normal feelings to my illness. They will treat me differently and they will respect me less. Hearing these words that were said about me felt like punishment for being greedy and thinking it was possible to “have it all’. Hearing these hurtful words made me realize that I still have a lot of self-hatred that I’ve been hiding and that I definitely have a lack of self-respect. I am definitely sometimes the one doing the isolating and the othering of myself. I hold back and hide from people because I fear a lack of empathy and understanding of my intense emotions and symptoms. I am constantly carrying around this weight that affects how I interact with other people. Nervous and anxious, I often retreat to where I feel safe due to fear of being judged for something that is so ingrained in my being.
However, I have also been constantly proven wrong about the nature and goodness of people, after receiving countless messages and comments from friends and strangers alike with encouraging words. It is for those people that I am going to try to fight this pain and anger and continue in my mental health advocacy work. Even if it scares me. As Pema said in the quote above, I will try to use these intense feelings of pain to learn more about myself, my bipolar disorder and mental illness in general. I will explore these emotions and fears about huge concepts like being a good parent, a good partner and a good friend. I really don’t want to live in shame. It’s not very fun at all, nor it is useful or helpful in achieving my goals.
So I will push myself to keep sharing, to keep slowly chipping away at the stigma that permeates our society in every corner. I might need to take some breaks every now and then, but I will never give up. I will continue to believe that the majority of people are beautiful, weird, and wonderful and I will continue to try and see the good in everyone.