“You seem to be going through a lot. I don’t want to burden you with my issues.”
“I don’t have the right to feel this way when so many other people have it worse.”
Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve said this at one point to yourself, friends, family, acquaintances, your dog (or cat—for cat lovers). I am all too familiar with this kind of thinking. I’ve always held myself up to an impeccably high standard—it’s undoubtedly gotten me to where I am today. We as Penn students are in a very privileged situation. We often think failure is not an option. But it took a lot for me that to realize that struggling doesn’t translate to failure.
Last semester, after years of struggling on and off with undiagnosed depression, I was diagnosed with bipolar depression, type II. Since revealing my diagnosis to family members and close friends, their reactions have ranged from immediate understanding to confusion and fear. There’s been no shortage of well–intentioned advice: “be very careful with whom you disclose it to, keep it to yourself." What would other people think?
Initially, I bought this line of reasoning until I realized that hiding the way I felt made my depression worse. I began to self–isolate, which made me feel increasingly alone in my experience. The decision to share my story is not only crucial to my own healing process. In doing so, I hope to help people understand mental illness better. It’s important to recognize that mental illness exists on a spectrum. I want anyone else that can relate in any form—regardless of whether they have a “diagnosable mental illness”—to feel less alone in their experiences.
During a period of psychiatric hospitalization for depression, I can recall feeling ashamed of my pain in comparison to others. Everyone around me was in an objectively “worse” situation. Some patients used substances to cope with their pain and fought parole officers who were determined to keep them in jail. Others were robbed of the ability to adequately provide for their children. Even more had no home to go to after being discharged.
Here I was, in a “better” situation. No one in my life had physically died, yet I felt that the “real me” had died. My spirit was gone. It was like I was sitting in the passenger seat of an out–of–control vehicle.
I believe that experiencing this kind of “loss of self” is not readily present in discourses about mental illness. “Loss of self” is the feeling of despair that comes from becoming a person that you barely recognize, from being unable to take pride in yourself. Losing yourself is looking in the mirror and seeing only the negative aspects of yourself. What was once an image with a delicate balance between white, black and shades of grey has now simply become all black. Not just for a fleeting moment, but over an extended period of time, with no clear end. That is what depression feels like.
What further distressed me was that I felt this way despite “having it all," especially in comparison to some of my fellow patients. When I revealed how shameful my pain felt relative to theirs, they were all quick to dispel these notions. “If I was in your situation, man, I don’t even know. I could totally see how all that pressure would tear you apart."
You may know of bipolar disorder, but here’s a quick crash course: the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–V) currently groups bipolar under a class of illnesses known as mood disorders. The DSM–V criteria for diagnosing bipolar II disorder is experiencing “at least one hypomanic episode and at least one depressive episode."
I received a diagnosis of major depression prior to receiving the correct one for bipolar II. Hearing this stirred simultaneous feelings of relief and fear. Relief because I finally had an answer to my erratic behavior. I wasn’t crazy or making it all up in my head. Other people had gone through this experience and survived. Fear because “bipolar” seems to suggest a person that’s “crazy," “unpredictable,” and just generally someone to stay away from. Not ideal.
When people ask me what being bipolar feels like, it’s always difficult to answer. It’s like trying to explain every feeling in my life that I’ve considered “normal," not wanting to admit that there might be a deeper problem with some of them. For instance, I can remember distinct periods of experiencing “walking depression” in high school. But I was still productive in balancing my commitments, so from an outsider’s perspective, it didn’t appear that anything was wrong.
I starkly recall constant feelings of anger that I didn’t yet understand. I would blow up at innocuous things that felt completely justified for getting angry about in the moment. Then in the aftermath, I would spend days and weeks obsessively beating myself up over it. Some days I would wake up and feel intensely angry for no identifiable reason. It was incredibly frustrating. I remember feeling so ashamed of these emotions. Why couldn’t I just “get a grip?”
Some people ask me about the hypomania, thinking it must be pretty cool to experience, as if somehow the hypomanic periods justify the depressive ones. Admittedly, the symptom profile sounds amazing. Who wouldn’t want to be on top of the world and feel superhuman, soaring through life on little to no sleep? Everything feels possible. Why would I want to take medication? What if it makes me lose the high periods?
But what people don’t often realize is that hypomanic phases are not as long and prolonged as the depression phases. With bipolar II, the primary concern with treatment is the periods of depression. What’s more, cycling back and forth between two diametrically opposite states of depression and hypomania is exhausting. Hypomania is like a wave that rises up before crashing spectacularly onto the shore, the buildup brief in comparison to the receding depression that follows it.
As many sufferers of mental illness will say, it’s not something you can truly understand until you personally go through it. I know how difficult it is to understand because I at one point also did not understand. Part of me is extremely glad that others don’t understand, because truly understanding would mean you have firsthand experience, and the experience is not something I would wish upon anybody.
Many Penn students often cite a lack of community contributing to feelings of loneliness. Our privilege dictates that we cannot show weakness. The fear of talking about our struggles and burdening others with our pain is real.
But the truth is, silence breeds misunderstanding. Speaking up about our struggles is crucial in combating the stigma. It takes strength to share the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. Whether you are or are not suffering from a mental illness, your pain is valid and worth sharing. The struggles you endure make you a stronger and better human being. And that is significant.
Nancy Hu is a senior from Sarasota, Florida studying Health and Societies in the College of Arts and Sciences.