I’ve been thinking a lot about my adolescence lately. This is partly because I’m continuing to delve into my past as I work on my memoir, and partly because both my children are now at ages at which I was battling bipolar pretty much single-handedly. It’s also the consequence of befriending several young people on Twitter and watching them go through struggles which feel all too familiar.
All of this has got me pondering what I would want teenagers to know about living long-term with a mental health condition. I was touched and heartened when the wonderful “It Gets Better” project was launched a couple of years ago. For those that aren’t familiar, the project involves adult members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community donating videos of themselves talking to camera about their experiences. The idea is to give hope to LGBT youth who may be struggling, by sharing experiences of how “it gets better” as people move into adulthood and are able to take more control of their lives.
There are a lot parallels between the struggles of LGBT youth and those of young people with mental health conditions (and, of course, many young people fall into both camps). Young mental health services users face stigma, and just as with LGBT young people, this can lead to bullying or ridicule. Families may be unwilling to accept that the teen has a genuine problem, or perhaps just feel ill-equipped to talk about the issues. I know that I would have loved an “It Gets Better” for mental health when I was a teenager. I knew no-one who would willingly talk to me about living with a mental illness, and as a consequence I felt very isolated. I started asking for help when I was 12, but no meaningful help came my way until I left home. As a teenager, I couldn’t envisage myself living to adulthood, let alone accessing helpful treatment. To have any kind of a mentor or role-model, even a complete stranger, giving me the message that it does get better would have meant the world to me.
So here’s my testimony. This is what I’d like younger people with mental health problems to know: IT GETS BETTER.
It gets better because, as you get older, you are more able to surround yourself with people who understand. Some young people with a mental health condition are lucky enough to have a supportive family. Others, however, grow up in a family environment where mental health problems are viewed embarrassing and shameful, or are simply not acknowledged all. Just as in the LGBT community, many people with mental health problems choose to build their own family network, rather relying the family they were born into. Because when you’re an adult, you get to develop your family of choice. This could be by finding a life partner and having children of your own, but it could also be by changing your idea of what “family” means. Many families of choice are created when people who have a strong connection actively choose to nurture and support each other.
It gets better, because treatments are getting better. In the 20 years since I was initially diagnosed, the range of possible treatments has widened. The drugs I take now aren’t wonderful. They have a lot of side effects, and they’re certainly not something anybody would take lightly, but I do actually have a range of choices now. And who knows what will be available in another 10 years, or another 20? Talking treatments too have moved on. There are more types of therapy than ever before. Although I look forward to the day when they are more generally available, the short courses of therapy I have had were valuable.
It gets better, because as you enter adulthood, people begin to take you more seriously. It shouldn’t be this way; you should be treated with the same level of dignity and respect whether you are 13, 33 or 53. But as I entered adulthood I found that people finally began to accept that there was something wrong with me. I was no longer seen as a “silly girl” or a “moody teenager”. There were fewer accusations of being “attention-seeking” and my symptoms were less likely to seen as related to hormones.
It gets better, because you will learn about yourself. Your disorder might always be a part of your life, much as you wish that weren’t the case. But over time, you will develop coping strategies that can sometimes take the edge off. Doctors might always be the expert in your condition, but you will become the expert on you. You will be able to road-test different strategies, pick and choose the ones that work for you. You’ll make mistakes (I made a lot) but you’ll learn something from those, too – knowing what doesn’t work for you is as important as knowing what does.
It gets better, because as you get older and you are better equipped with self-knowledge, you’ll feel more able to challenge any unhelpful clinicians you encounter. You will become more confident about speaking up when something’s not right. And each time you do that, each time you put in a complaint, or decline an unhelpful treatment or otherwise stand your ground, you will be affirming that you know who you are, that you know who you are what’s going on with you, even if you don’t have a medical degree.
It gets better. I have come to a point where I can safely say that although bipolar may sometimes come along and act like a wrecking ball, my life is good. It is good despite the highs and the lows, despite the meds and side effects. I have a fantastic partner who helps me manage my condition and a group of brilliant friends, both online and off. I have two teenagers of my own who care about mental health and wouldn’t hesitate to come to me if they were concerned about their own mental wellbeing. I’m building a new career out of my experiences and have used them to develop my writing skills.
My life has meaning. It gets better.