An Open Commentary to My Family (warning: this is kind of long)

I would like to introduce myself. My name is Jennifer. I am your daughter, your sister, your niece, your granddaughter, and your cousin. I am also mentally ill. Do not make the mistake of thinking that being mentally ill makes me less than.

For those of you that relish the stories of how you babysat my sister and myself, but then float off into the crowd at family events or or other party type events never to be seen or heard from again, I would like to say that your actions (or lack thereof) hurt me deeply. I do not need you telling perfect strangers that you used to change my diapers; that’s just you trying to appease your own sense of guilt for not speaking to me, for not inviting me to Thanksgiving and Christmas, for moving and not telling me where you live. It isn’t like I am going to crash your family party, drink all your liquor and dance on your coffee table with a lampshade on my head. I have Bipolar disorder and a few anxiety problems, not stupidity. I am not the local drunk.

I am one of about 5 million people who struggle with some form of the disorder every day. And, believe me, there are days, weeks when my life is pure struggle, pure will-power, and pure determination that I will get through this day. I will not falter, I will not cry in front of people as I am so apt to do, I will not make good on the things the voices tell me to do. I will not listen to that voice, the singular one I hear that constantly reminds me that I am “damaged,” that I do not deserve a happy life, that I should really just take all those pills or use the knife on my desk and get everything over with. I simply refuse to let that voice win. You may think me weak for even having those thoughts, but you may be surprised to find that I am stronger than some for being able to muddle my way through the range of emotions that I can feel in a day.

I would not wish this illness on my worst enemy. It sucks everything you have right out of you at times. It can be grand fun when you are “high” in the early stages of mania. For those first 2 or 3 days, you are the funniest, the most clever, the smartest, the most original, the most productive person you know. Then, the lack of sleep starts to catch up to you. You become irritable, agitated, angry, unable to keep a lid on your thoughts and emotions. You wish with all your might for sleep that eludes you, you wish that your brain would just take a break (it doesn’t help if you also have ADHD), you wish that your thoughts would just simmer down a bit. Then, if none of these things happen, you break from yourself and the reality you know. Your thoughts become twisted, you are so tired but you cannot sleep, you start to think that suicide is a great plan (if only to get some rest), you find yourself in a very dark place where nothing is as it seems. You become Alice in Wonderland except Wonderland is quite real in your mind. The White Knight is talking backwards, and so are you. There is no returning to normalcy without a visit to the hospital where they take the medications that used to work, and they prescribe new ones or higher doses of old ones. They structure your life. They tell you when to wake up, when to eat, when to attend different group therapies (if you are lucky, you have “outdoor” privileges so you can see the sun), when to bathe, and when to sleep (if you can.) When the psychosis breaks and you come back down to earth, they let you go back to your life. Or what is left of it. 

Then, there is crushing depression and anxiety. I am not talking about feeling “blue,” a little sad, or the more normal situational depression that most people will experience at some point. I am talking about depression that comes on slowly like a warm blanket on a cold night. At first, you feel a little down. Maybe you are not eating as much or sleeping too much. Then, all of it hits at once. Kind of like a hurricane making landfall. You try to get out of bed, you try to get dressed, you try to bathe or wash your hair. You try to put on your make-up, you try to pay attention to the little things that indicate mental health. But. You. Just. Can’t. Do. It. You go days without bathing, you may go weeks without changing your bedding, your chest hurts as if your heart has stopped. You don’t care about anything and that voice comes back. The one I mentioned earlier that tells you how damaged you are, how much better this world would be without you in it. For me, this phase can last for an hour or two, or it can last months. It is especially bad during the Holidays when you snub me by not inviting me to your homes, or you fail to call to say Happy Thanksgiving. Even a text will do. Something, anything to let me know that you still care about how I am doing now not some far off place where you used to change my diapers; that little girl has been gone for many years. I am what is left standing. 

I am not my illnesses. I am so many other things. I am a damn good amateur photographer, I am a good student, I can be a good employee, I am a wife, I am a college graduate (that was rough going), I am a caring and compassionate person, I am a Buddhist, I am a writer, a thinker, an observer of my world. I am a human being. What I am not is that little girl you seem to wish that I still was. The one who looked up to you, who thought you were the coolest person on earth, who didn’t care if you made mistakes, who loved you without conditions and still does even if you don’t seem to love me without conditions. What I am is the result of a lot of negative and positive experiences, a lot of lessons learned the hard way, a lot of people hurt (including myself), a lot of learning to cope with emotions that won’t hold still for a moment so I can stop and breathe, and anxiety so acute that I can’t leave the general vicinity of my home. What I am is a person living with a serious mental illness that can’t understand why you have abandoned me when I have not abandoned you. I am a person living with an illness that destroys everything in its path if you let it, and sometimes keeping it reined in is a full time job. Sometimes the medications meant to keep those around me sane do not work, and I get delusional, emotional, depressed, manic, psychotic (often at the same time.)

While I understand that I failed to live up to everyone’s expectations for me, that I failed to live up to my “potential” (whatever that is), that I turned out differently than everyone wanted, that I had to go out and learn about life and people the hard way (sometimes the extremely hard way), I also feel that these experiences contributed to making me more humble, more compassionate, more realistic (although that idealistic little girl still exists), more understanding, and more empathetic. Yes, I had my “wild” period where I was very much in danger of becoming an addict, but I figured that one out and fixed the symptoms if not the cause (which I have never told you about, or if I have, you weren’t listening.) Yes, I can be very difficult to handle. Yes, I can operate under delusional thoughts at times, but I know deep down that these thoughts are not reality. Yes, I can be tough to listen to at times, I know that I have and continue to hurt people, sometimes so badly that they leave and never look back. To them, I have to say that the chances are good that I would have left eventually; generally people who abandon me are toxic to me and my continued “stability.” To those who are left standing with me, I love you with all my heart and anything else I can offer. I know myself pretty well at this point; something about having a serious mental illness has made me even more self-reflective than I used to be.

I am not a bad person, I am not someone you want to keep your kids away from. I have Bipolar disorder and a few other little friends. I am not a psychopath, a sociopath, or anything else you may think I am. What you don’t know is that I love you all very much, I am grateful to the people in my family who have gone out of their way to help me, and I am very angry with those who choose to pretend they love me in public but in private seem to want to have nothing to do with me. Do you know how much that hurts? I am still Jennifer. I am still your daughter, sister, niece, cousin and granddaughter. It is simply that now there is a label for what you all perceived as my oddness, my difference from other people. It is too bad that you can’t tell me from a label. I would never do that to you. I just wish that you would walk your talk or don’t talk at all. While I still love you because you are my family, I, too, am perfectly capable of removing those that do not enrich my life from it. Bipolar taught me how to do that as well. Bipolar disorder is a strict taskmaster, and you learn what you need to in order to survive it (it really is trying to kill you.)

Unfortunately, since you have all continued to keep me locked out of your lives for the past 20 years, you will not get to know who I am now and the person I will become unless you change your ways of doing things. I am not who you think. I may have been that person, but I am a completely different person now, and it hurts me deeply that some of you have no real interest in how I am doing in the present. People change. Even people with mental disorders. It is unfortunate that some of you have decided that I am not worth the effort (that is not a delusional thought; it is predicated on the actions you have taken.) I miss my family. I wish you knew how much I just want to be included. That is all. Even if I don’t come, invite me over for Christmas. Just extend the offer. I am tired of doing all the giving, and trying to be someone I am not in order to be loved. I am tired of trying to be what everybody seems to want me to be just to be accepted into your narrow little world. I am just tired of always trying and getting nothing in return. I think I have decided that I am going to stop trying to gain something that I apparently never had, and that is your acceptance and love. You know, my grandmother never cut me out of her life regardless of where I was at in my life. She was always there quietly supporting me with her care packages of dry goods and food, and patting my hand telling me that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. She knew I don’t believe in God, but it was the small action that made the difference. I know she loved me unconditionally.

I guess to sum up: I am sorry that I did not become what people thought I was capable of, I am sorry for things I have said or done to my family to cause them to want me out of their lives, I am just sorry. This is what the reality is; the cute little girl, the precocious little girl with the red hair is all grown up, and she is sick. If that is enough to reject me, then so be it. No, I am not angry at all.

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