(September 4, 2008)

Someone approached me having difficulty accepting her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. This prompts me to share an excerpt from my first book, Riding the Roller Coaster. Throughout the writing of this book I held in mind the people who were newly diagnosed and how hard it is to come to terms with it and how hard it is to learn to cope.

An Illness Like Any Other

“What consoles me is that I am beginning to consider madness
as an illness like any other, and that I accept is as such.”
– Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, 1889

We always think of mental illness as something that happens to other people, not to us. To be diagnosed with depression or manic depression is a scary thing. But how we cope with our mood disorder is largely determined by how we look at it. If we can accept it as the illness it is – an illness like any other – we will be ready to move ahead with our lives in a positive way.

The negative view much of society has of mental disorders is partly due to the fact that people do not understand there is usually a physical basis for these illnesses, often in the form of a chemical imbalance. This imbalance is treatable with medication. With effective treatment most of us can live close-to-normal lives. Mental illness is an illness like any other.

In fact, mood disorders could be looked at as other illnesses are – like diabetes. A diabetic is not to blame for his or her illness. Neither is a person with a mood disorder. Just as diabetes can cause serious disability and even death, so can mood disorders. Diabetics often require the use of medication to maintain stable blood sugar levels. People with mood disorders also require medication, in their case, to maintain emotional balance. Finally, as is the case with those who have diabetes, if people with mood disorders take their medications regularly, chances are they will live a close-to-normal life.

Nevertheless, because of the fear of having a “shameful” condition, or of being labeled by society, many don’t search out the help they so desperately need. What results is much unnecessary suffering by people who could otherwise have been helped.

In recent years much research has been done and doctors, mental health associations, societies and libraries can provide much information. Mood disorder self-support groups are an especially good source of information. Here we can find pertinent literature and discuss affective illnesses with others who have problems similar to our own.

As we come to terms with our disease we learn to understand how imperative medications and other treatments are – how they form the basis for our well-being. Once we have the physical aspects of our illness under control, we can prepare to take charge of our lives and make the most of the strengths we all have.

As we walk with our friends and acquaintances, we should walk with self-assurance. In that great family of individuals who suffer from personal problems, sicknesses, and handicaps, each of us is a unique yet ordinary member.

Note: I wrote the above ten years ago. It was utterly unthinkable to me that a person with bipolar disorder could manage without medication. I know it has never been possible for me. I also know that the majority of people with bipolar disorder that I come across – and I meet many in the work I do – medication is necessary if they are to function normally. However, I also know that in the blogs I’ve read there are a number of people who are making it without or with very little medication. I would not recommend trying to persevere without medical care at the cost of being unstable. Bipolar disorder can cause a lot of damage – to our finances, our relationships, our safety, and even the safety of those around us. It needs to be adequately managed. Medications can make a good, productive life possible.