I was 15 years old the first time I had heard the terms ‘manic depression’ or ‘bipolar disorder.’ I was standing with a group of my friends in a small park across the street from my high school when I heard someone talking about these mental illnesses. A good friend, Mike, had been diagnosed with manic depression. As he began to share some small details of how he had been feeling, I remember my feelings of empathy, giving way to dread. The symptoms he had described were similar to those I had been feeling for some time. While I wanted to be there for him, I was terrified. Was I, too, ill?
The year was 1995.
Several years passed between the day I first heard the term ‘manic depression’ and when I received my official diagnosis. I was 21 years old when the Doctor told me I had manic depression and social anxiety disorder, which was bordering on agoraphobia. In his opinion, I likely had been sick for many years without knowing it. Although mental illnesses were not new in the medical world, often they were not spoken of in the open.
To say there was a stigma surrounding mental health would be an understatement.
Mental health, or to be more specific, mental illness, was not something that you discussed in ‘polite’ society at the time, but when it was it would generally surround women, as there seemed to be unhealthy, implied belief that men were not entitled to feel depressed or anxious. From my early teens until the time I moved out of my father’s house, I was taught that emotions like sadness, hopelessness, and lethargy ‘belonged’ to women. Men were to be strong, calm and level. If we were to feel a strong emotion, it would be anger and perhaps moderate happiness.
“Pain goes away,” my father would tell me often. “Pain is only a four-letter word. And if you’re looking for sympathy, it’s in the dictionary between syphilis and shit.”
A year before my diagnosis, my ex-wife and I had our first daughter. The day she was born, I cried. It was open and honest. I didn’t try and hide it. I promised myself, then and there, that I would never tell her that mental illness was a weakness. I promised her that I would be a better role model. While I faltered in many ways, I also succeeded in many more.
As she grew, so did I, as did society. More advocates started to take up the banner of mental health awareness. The journey from where we were to where we are hasn’t been easy. Along the way, western culture has struggled to evolve. There are people all over the gender spectrum, from all ethnicities and faiths, who still have a difficult time talking about these illnesses. Some of us are still scared. Sometimes I am still scared.
The year 2020 marks my second year at Thompson Rivers University. I’m 40 years old, taking classes with young adults who are around the same age as my eldest daughter. It’s been a scary journey for me, and I’ve struggled with my mental health the whole time.
I’ve often felt irrational fears creeping into the back of my mind, wondering what makes me think I belong here.
But it’s when these fears get the strongest that I reach out to friends I had before I came here, as well as friends I’ve met on campus. They remind me that it’s okay not to be okay, because one day I will be. As the old saying goes, “The night is always darkest before the dawn.” When I’m down, I try to understand that I’m sick, not weak, and with the support of my friends, family, and the professionals I trust, I’ll be alright.