Author: Claire Gault
I am a server at a senior living center that is home to many interesting people. Among them are a distinguished former president of a university, a resident who claims to have been friends with Rob Zombie, and many eccentric war veterans. One of my favorites is a 97 year old former clerical worker named “Minnie”. She is one of the loudest residents we serve, and I can always count on her to bang her mug on the table, demanding coffee immediately after being wheeled into the dining room. When I bring her breakfast, she tells me she loves me in a shockingly resonant voice. Minnie can’t hear anything below the volume of our fire alarm, so I gesticulate my appreciation, laying my hand over my heart while smiling at her. Sometimes if I walk away listening carefully, I hear her passionately insult me to an empty table.
Her limited diet of soft, flavorless food must be frustrating. I wouldn’t want to eat oatmeal every other morning, either. Since Minnie is nearly deaf, she probably believes I can’t hear her. The woman is almost blind, nearly deaf, and I’ve only seen a visitor here for her twice. Compassion for her overwhelms any indignation I would feel. Nevertheless, the other servers and I laugh about her sailor’s mouth. I say that she lost her filter years ago. Another server calls her bipolar.
The conversation steers away from Minnie, but that “bipolar” comment stings. The use of mental illnesses as pejoratives has always bothered me, but even more so since I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar 1 about three years ago. It is unfortunate that bipolar disorder has become synonymous with moodiness, outbursts of emotion, or in Minnie’s case, symptoms of dementia. I’ve found the reality of bipolar disorder to be much more complicated.
My first experience with mania occurred in China during my study abroad, three years ago. I underwent a lot of stress, coming from my intense Chinese classes, homesickness, and over-caffeination (I drank much more tea than water). My symptoms grew serious and greatly worried my classmates. I had delusions about the government, hallucinations from my lack of sleep, and strange behavior. I was sent home around the sixth week of our trip, although I was scheduled to be there for ten. After a hospital stay and years of therapy, I have largely recovered from my first (and only) manic episode.
Although mania is undoubtedly destructive, I try to find positives. Some of its waning effects did wonders for my social life. I made about twenty new friends when I was a sophomore at college that fall. Singing and dancing in public earned me (albeit confused) admiration from strangers. I read my poetry in front of a crowd of people and truly believed I was the most beautiful, articulate, and interesting person on the planet. My confidence has never peaked higher than at the tail end of my mania. However, I’ve come to realize that many people believe this is all that mania is, which is far from the truth.
I survived a severe manic episode, and everyday I prove that stereotypes about bipolar 1 disorder are false. I believed I would be forever damaged after mania, but I have emerged a wholler, brighter person. Experience with mental illness has given me acute intuition to recognize feelings in others, especially people like Minnie, who are in need of compassion and respect, just like anyone else. Upon three years of reflection, China will always remain one of my favorite places, for offering a new cultural perspective, people that saved my life, and a true testament to my strength. When I was in a crisis, I fell back onto unquestioned support and love.
The shame of mental illness is a wave, determined to pull victims into its undertow. I will not succumb.