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Bipolar: Abnormal?

I watched a video the other day about children with mental health problems. The video began with them wearing labels of which particular illness they had (bipolar, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit, etc). At the end of the video they peeled off their labels to reveal what they wanted to do with their lives; to be a lawyer, a professional footballer or a pianist, for example.

It made me think about what being labelled does to us, and more importantly our reputations. In England, by law, you now have to disclose any mental illness you may have on a job application.

How do I feel about this?

As a person with bipolar, I cannot deny that when I am unwell my problems will inevitably transfer into my work place. It’s not my fault, not when I’m manic or depressed but at the same time I can’t help it, and a lot of the time I wouldn’t be doing my job properly.

On the other hand, all mental illnesses come with a huge stigma attached to them and so when an employer sees the word ‘bipolar’ written on a job application, well that’s pretty much all they’re going to see. They’re not going to remember the part that says ‘plenty of experience in this field’ or ‘good with customers’, they’re probably going to see something more like: ‘I will be constant trouble. When I’m manic I will run wild, get paranoid and maybe even threaten my co-workers with a knife. When I’m depressed I won’t show up for work for weeks on end and you’ll eventually have to fire me.’ No one can help thinking these things about people like me; it’s just the taboo that follows us around. Even if I went into remission for 20 years, I will always be bipolar on paper and always be considered less appropriate than other, more ‘normal’ people for the job; whatever job.

But it’s not just job hunting which becomes a problem once you carry the burden of a diagnosis, it’s car insurance, travel insurance, CRB checks and anything official.

So, if it’s hard enough getting anything official done, try entering into a new relationship and telling them you have bipolar.

I’ve never been one to hide my illness, not from anyone and probably to my detriment. This is because I’m not at all ashamed of it. Yes, I can be a nightmare but being a nightmare has turned me into a strong human being and I am proud of what I have had to face and come through to get to where I am now, emotionally and literally. In fact, it’s always one of the first things I tell new partners. I probably shouldn’t advertise it as much as I do (considering the way most people view mental illness)- it’s surprising I haven’t put anyone off yet- but I also think it makes me interesting.

However, I don’t imagine other people have had the same luck I have with being so open and honest. Most (uninformed) people think a person with bipolar is…

  • Insane, to put it simply. Most people think that having bipolar means you’re completely mad, 100% of the time.
  • Scary. Some people seem to think that people with bipolar are dangerous in some way; like when we’re manic we suddenly become violent.
  • I have seen some films and documentaries which show someone having a ‘manic episode’ where they’re running the streets naked or talking about how they think they’re Jesus. Yes, this does happen but only during full-blown mania.
  • Emotionally vulnerable. Again, I’ve seen fictional films and programs where the character with bipolar can go from ecstatic to suicidal in the space of about five seconds. This may exist in some rare form of bipolar- I don’t know- but my point is that rapid cycling isn’t that quick and we’re not like it all the time. I myself have Rapid Cycling Bipolar which means my moods can swing up to hourly, but I’m not like that when I’m well.

A lot of people with bipolar have dramatic symptoms where they can go from full-blown mania to suicidal depression during an episode, but others have much more subtle symptoms, everyone is different. My episodes differ every time; sometimes I am only hypomanic, followed by a less serious drop into depression and sometimes I experience full-blown mania and then crash and become suicidal.

So, if I’m bipolar, am I still ‘normal’?

Absolutely. Having a mental illness- any mental illness- does not define a person. For me, my bipolar is not even a part of me; not of my mind and not of my body. It is an illness and therefore a separate force which essentially invades my mind, and not by my will.

People with a whole range of mental illnesses can still live normal lives, so long as they are under the right care and supervision and look after themselves. However, having an illness like bipolar does not come Scott-free, there are measures we have to take that other people without a problem don’t have to. Medication is often needed (although not the answer to everything), most people need the care of a psychiatrist and we have to be careful not to make ourselves unwell by doing things like drinking too much caffeine or not getting enough sleep.

If we take the necessary precautions, nothing should stop us from living a normal lifestyle, just like anyone else.

Philosophy of Medicine: On Mental Illness

Last year, during my final term at university studying philosophy, I was taking a class in Philosophy of Medicine. We covered mental health for a couple of weeks and the final essay I chose to write was called ‘Can I Be Ill and Happy?’

Here I have written a few excerpts from my essay, since it is relevant to the nature of this blog.

‘Can I Be Ill and Happy?’

On the one hand, the disabled individual can be ill in the sense of their lack of ability to achieve the same goals as other more able bodied people, such as participating in sports, joining in with work related activities and going on trips.

Disabled individuals may sometimes feel themselves detaching from the social world for these reasons. Also, they often lack autonomy and so relationships can become a strain- a lack of independence can be a huge factor.

Mental illness usually comes with a stigma attached to it and so, whether or not the mentally ill person wills it, social situations can be very difficult. Finding a job may also become a problem due to judgments being made based on the grounds that the ill person cannot fulfil the role in the same way as a ‘healthy’ person could.

As noted by Charmaz, people experiencing chronic illness are actually able to embark on a journey of self-discovery and possess the tools to develop themselves a great deal.

It must also be noted that- as studies show- chronic illness and disability is a purely subjective matter. For example, for one person it marks the end of their world as they once knew it (or, if born with chronic illness or disability, wished to know). But for another it is, as highlighted above, a tool for self-development.

On this view, we may discard our idea of health and illness being mutually distinct and embrace the idea that we can achieve a blend of the two.

On the other hand, limitations can be viewed in different ways. In one sense a limitation in the way one’s body functions can be experienced as alienation and loss of self-worth, in another, making progress and completing difficult tasks can merit a sense of achievement and gratitude. For example taking physiotherapy and improving one’s abilities, or walking up a steep hill without becoming breathless (for a person suffering from lung cancer, for example).

Another creative element of the chronically ill is that one learns (or has no choice but to) to live in the present, understanding the transience and fragility of life in the way that the healthy often cannot. Since the ill person is limited in what plans they can make for the future, one must learn to appreciate the here and now. This rare insight is available through the experience of illness.

In my essay, I also wrote about the conflicting views of some philosophers that mental illnesses are different from physical ones; whereas other philosophers believe they are conceptually the same.

One philosopher, Szasz , denied that mental health was a real illness. He argued this on the basis that the word ‘illness’ literally means a physiological illness, and mental health does not fall under that umbrella, as such. In fact he took physical illness to be ‘…well-defined, objective, and reducible to physiological phenomenon.’

Taking this into account, mental illness fails to match up to these premises- it is not objective, nor is it ‘…reducible to a physiological basis.’ And so Szasz rejects some strongly held claims. He has two metaphysical reasons for this. Firstly, his claim is based on the assumption that, taking into consideration that medicine is a science, it is ‘…concerned only with the material realm.’

In addition to this theory, he rejects any materialism surrounding anything mental. In 1960, Szasz held that illness could be defined in physiological terms and that ‘…the concept of mental health cannot be reduced to such terms…’ He claimed that we cannot stretch this definition to mental health simply because- where the body is material- the mind is not and it therefore cannot be diseased in the same way in which the body can. We must mark a strong distinction between the two. He even went so far as to say that, if we were to broaden this criterion (for physiological illnesses) to include illnesses of the mind, we would be making a fatal mistake based on the materialist-medical definition.

But there are other philosophers that argue against Szasz’s theory.

We can oppose this view by stating that mental illness has observable symptoms. Persons suffering from mental illness seem to suffer to the same extent that people with a physical illness do. I can understand why mental illness is more difficult to diagnose (since we can’t see it), but- symptomatically- it does not differ that much from physical illnesses.

The view that mental and physical illness are completely separate derives from the old philosophy of the mind/body distinction, but I claim that- nowadays- we know much more about mental illness and the mind; in fact some doctors claim that chemical imbalances can be seen in the brain, showing evidence that mental illness exists.

Perhaps what is really needed is a better education about mental illness; one as extensive as that for physiological conditions.

Alcoholism: The (inaccurate) Raging Stereotype

We’ve all seen it somewhere, in an advert for organizations like ‘Frank’ or in a magazine; the picture of a middle-aged man sat on a park bench drinking from a paper bag. It does happen, but this shouldn’t be the world is taught to see the disease of alcoholism.

I’m a 25 year old woman and I got into recovery when I was just 20. I’m not an old man, I’ve never slept on a park bench and I’ve certainly never drank out of a paper bag.

Not all alcoholics are homeless; I have met people from a whole range of age groups in AA and many of them were ‘functioning alcoholics’, in other words, they led totally normal lives while drinking. I’ve met women who held down a full time job, held down a successful marriage and managed multiple children. But I’ve also met men and women who didn’t make it into recovery until they were in their sixties, who didn’t manage to have any kind of a life at all during their drinking, who sometimes ended up on the streets. The point is, we all have our own story, and we’re all different.

I myself started drinking heavily at a very young age and by the time I reached 19 I was drinking in the mornings. Despite all odds, I made it through my education and into university. Although I had to drop out twice and encountered many problems along the way, I graduated last summer. I don’t think I could have finished if I hadn’t found sobriety during my degree but the fact that I made it through at all erases me from the stereotype of a ‘regular’ alcoholic.

I actually did more with my life while I was drinking than I am able to do now, sober. I have always had a job, ever since I was 12 when I started chamber maiding part-time. I’ve been in multiple relationships and my best friend and I have known one another since we were 14.

So what is an alcoholic?

The truth of it is, there is no real definition, but there are some tell-tale signs which may help you if you think you might have a problem with alcohol.

First of all: The obsession with drink. If you have no control over your drinking and if you just don’t know when to stop (or you’re unable to) then your habit is not healthy. What made it obvious to me in the beginning that I had a problem was that- even without a drink in my hand, no matter where I was- I was always thinking about the next one.

Secondly, insanity. Insanity is defined as making the same mistakes over and over again, expecting different results. If you have a problem with drinking, you’ve probably gotten yourself into trouble a few times. As alcoholics we are in denial. We will do something stupid and then expect something different to happen the next time, or we will insist that it will never happen again and go on drinking the same, insane amounts.

Thirdly, and believe it or not, alcohol does not make an alcoholic happy. In fact, most of the time we are drinking to hide from our feelings. Every day is a mental battle and we think alcohol will solve that, but it never does. Because of the negative effect alcohol had on me, and because of the way I behaved as a result, I carried a huge cloud of stink and guilt around with me and I would only drink more in hope it would disappear, beginning the whole vicious cycle all over again.

In addition, if you are using alcohol to either enhance or suppress your emotions like I did, then you should probably try and find a healthier way of doing it; alcohol is not the answer to anyone’s problems.

Lastly, we all know that everyone occasionally does silly things when they’ve had too much to drink, but if that sort of behaviour leaks into your everyday life- even when you’re not drunk, then you might want to consider that you’re not drinking a healthy amount.

Of course, you can apply some of those points to a normal person without a drinking problem, but for me they were hints and signs when I already knew- deep down- that I had a problem.

A lot of denial goes into alcoholism and I myself suffered from it for a very long time. At the end of the day we have to admit things to ourselves (step one in AA) before we can find any real recovery.