By Gabe Howard
In 2003, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital with suicidal ideation, delusions, and depression – I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Even with that list of symptoms, the diagnosis surprised me. Before I walked through the emergency room doors that day, I would have said there was nothing wrong with me.
I had no idea what mental illness looked like.
I grew up in a middle-class family. My father was a truck driver and my mom was a homemaker. We weren’t rich, but we were stable and owned a house in the suburbs. We had two cars, health insurance, and I even had braces. We were stereotypical blue collar, and I was raised to believe that anything bad that happens to a man could be resolved by rubbing mud on it.
While I’m exaggerating slightly, there was an expectation in my family that I behave a certain way. I was raised to be reliable, calm, and respectful — all qualities that are difficult for someone experiencing depression or mania to achieve.
When I didn’t live up to the standards my parents set, they punished me. The sicker I got, the more I was punished. The more I was punished, the more isolated I felt. And, of course, since I wasn’t being treated for the underlying condition, I continued to get sicker.
I thought about suicide every single day. I never realized that was unusual, because it was never discussed. I just assumed everyone thought this way. When I finally decided to end my life, it was uneventful in my mind. Thankfully, someone took notice of the signs of suicidal ideation and asked me, point blank, if I was considering killing myself.
I had no reason to lie, so I answered yes. She immediately said that I needed to come with her to a hospital. This surprised me. I looked right at her and said, “Why? I’m not sick. Only sick people need to go to hospitals.”
I did go to the hospital, and soon had a diagnosis. When the hospital psychiatrist informed me that I have bipolar disorder, I asked him how he knew. He told me I was a classic presentation and that he was surprised no one had noticed it before.
I really wasn’t surprised that no one had noticed it, though. Who, in my life, could possibly have known I was suffering from some sort of mental health issue? None of us had ever been informed about mental illness – we understood it to be violence, frothing at the mouth, and low intelligence. I wasn’t violent, and I was very intelligent – I even had a job. To our limited understanding, mentally ill people couldn’t work. So, certainly I couldn’t be mentally ill.
Of course, after the diagnosis, I learned a lot about mental illness, about bipolar disorder, and about myself. I had to relearn how to think and build myself back up. I had to adjust to medication side effects, and I had to face demons I didn’t know I had. Most importantly, I had to take responsibility for behaviors that —while not exactly my fault —weren’t anyone else’s fault, either.
It’s been a hard journey and a traumatic one. And it’s taken an incredible amount of time – as it turns out, the distance between diagnosis and recovery is measured in years, not weeks or months.
Today, after putting in the hard work to understand my bipolar disorder and understand myself, I’ve become an expert in my own recovery – which means that now I can spend more time living my life than thinking about bipolar disorder.
Find more personal stories about living with bipolar disorder here.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer, mental health advocate, and sought-after speaker. He is the host of The Psych Central Show podcast and a regular contributor to Psych Central, Bipolar Magazine, and other online journals. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife, Kendall. He can be found online at gabehoward.com