Thursday, September 04, 2008

An illness like any other

Michelle's difficulty with accepting her diagnosis of bipolar disorder 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 are comparable to other illnesses, such as 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.


Jena said...

This comment is for Michelle-
Michelle, I realize your blog is private, so I thought i'd tell you here (and Marja I hope you don't mind)... I felt very similarly to how you described when I was diagnosed. I knew my mood was unstable and that I probably needed a mood stabilizer and asked for a referral to a psychiatrist. Then I was diagnosed. But for some reason I kept thinking "this must be all wrong" and I was in and out of 'deep denial' for probably the first year and a half. I've only been diagnosed for just over 2 years. In the last year, I have had such trouble getting the right meds on board and making bad choices (taking diet pills) that I got super sick and realized just how bipolar I can get and ended up hospitalized. Now that a bunch of psychiatrists all think I'm bipolar, I finally have come to terms with it. It's really hard to accept this kind of diagnosis. I found relating with others who had the same symptoms as me on these blogs to be so helpful. I didn't feel so alone. Before I came to these blogs I didn't know anyone with bipolar (personally) and was told i was "too emotional" for most of my life. The people who write here- they write about their lives and relate to each other like this. You are not alone. Take care. Sincerely, Jena

michelle said...

Hey there. Thanks for you reply. I didn't know my blog was private since I didn't even know I had one (just joined the webring yesterday). I'm pretty technologically prehistoric and don't really know how to navigate the webring. I'm learning and once I've figure out where exactly the blog is located I'll unprivatize it!
Take care,

marja said...

Thanks, Jena, for helping out by relating your own experiences. It's a little different for everyone, isn't it? And we can learn so much from each other.

Michelle: I think you actually have to create/set up a blog. My son did it for me so I'm don't know how to go about it, but I think it's quite straight forward.

Can you help with some advice, Jena?

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your comments about bipolar and your quote from your book which I have not read yet but plan to. I only found you last week! One of the unfortunate parts of my journey was that I was not diagnosed bipolar for years, just depressed, and so the wrong medications were being used.... however, I seem to be on track now, but that doesn't mean it is smooth sailing at all. I have to make sure I get enough sleep, eat right and don't do too much which is hard, since most of us bipolars are so creative. Even happiness is my enemy, if I get too happy I get too excited and manic usually follows unless I recognize it or my husband does and I intentionally try to calm down by doing nothing, which I do not want to do when I am so happy. Who knew happiness could be the enemy? Your writing is so clear and succinct and easy to understand for anyone. I applaud your efforts to reach out to those of us with mental disorders.

Jena said...

Michelle & Marja,
Setting up a blog is so much easier than you would think! Go to and click the link that says "create a new blog" (or something like that) and just follow the directions from there. It gives you choices on what you want it to look like, and you basically just click on your choices and continue. When it comes to adding the elements to your blog, i find it quite user friendly. Any time you want to change parts of your blog- add things, move things around, you click on "customize" in the top corner of your blog and you go to "layout." You can then enter into any of your elements, or just drag them around. Once you become familiar with the basics, you'll end up finding ways of making other changes too. I don't know if this was helpful... I hope so. Good luck!

marja said...

Hi Wendalyn, Yeah, a pretty stupid situation when it becomes dangerous to be too happy eh? :)

And there's another danger about being too happy, it's so often followed by depression. It seems that the higher we go, the further we have to fall.

Good that you have a husband who will recognize it and warn you. My husband does that for me as well. Great to have support like that.

marja said...

Thanks, Jena, for helping Michelle out. And Michelle, we look forward to visiting you at your blog one day soon.

Nancie said...

Dear Marja, Thank you for sharing this excerpt from your book. It is really helpful. I fully agree that we need to look at our illness as An Illness Like Any Other. Accepting that we have a chronic mental illness is very very difficult for most people. But I found that it is in accepting our diagnosis that we can learn to understand why we feel or behave differently at different time, how our conditions affects us and our well-being, our relationship with others, work, family, church, etc and then seek to learn to manage our condition and find wellness helps and activities so that we can live a close to normal life.

Dear Michelle, For me, my diagnosis of bipolar disorder last year, after some 20 years of mood swings with severe depression was a relief. For the first time in my life, I finally understood what I was going through. I have been so confused over the last 20 years and often have to battle with false guilt. There is still such a terrible stigma associated with mental illness. In the past I was told that I was emotional, nor right with God and need to have faith in God, etc etc that really made me more depressed. When I knew that my condition is actually an illness and a medical condition that can be treated, it helps me to look at myself and my condition in a different light. It enables me to seek medical and other helps. I am still reading and learning how to manage my condition. I too am thankful that medication helps me and I can be more functional and seek out other helps. Hope you continue to share and find support among us and wellness activities that helps you! Remembering you in my prayers.

P.J. said...


This is EXACTLY what I needed to read today. Exactly. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing it. It actually brought tears to my eyes.

marja said...

Nancie: Acceptance IS so very important. There's a certain amount of peace that comes with that.

marja said...

PJ: I'm so glad that piece did you some good.