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In honour of this month being mental health awareness month, I have decided to blog about what being Bipolar means to me. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is hosting their annual mental health week this May 6-12 2019. This year marks the 68th annual CMHA Mental Health Week which is dedicated to reducing the stigma around mental illness and promoting good mental health. This year’s core message is “Get loud about what mental health really is.” Many Canadians confuse the terms mental health and mental illness and use them interchangeably. This confusion contributes to the stigma of mental illness by dividing people into those who experience mental illness and those who do not.

One in five Canadians live with mental health problems, mental illnesses or addiction. I am one of these Canadians. I struggle with and am diagnosed with Bipolar disorder. I also struggle with an addiction to marijuana and prior to this year, an addiction to various illegal narcotics. What does being bipolar mean to me? It means a variety of things. It means I will forever be on a steady dose of anti-psychotic to keep my manic psychosis at bay, I cycle through moods more than I change my clothes, and I struggle to get out of bed most days. But being bipolar means more than anything that I struggle daily with my mental health.

According to CMHA, diverse evidence from across Canada and around the world indicates there are six common features of good mental health: a sense of self, a sense of purpose, of belonging, of contribution, enjoyment and resilience. I struggle with my mental health not only because of my mental illness but also because I feel a sense of lack in these common features of mental health. I find since having to leave University due to my mental illness, I’ve lost my sense of purpose. I used to wake up each day with one very real goal in my mind – to finish my Bachelor of Arts Honors. Every thing I did revolved around this goal and led to a sub set of goals such as starting my own arts organization on campus – which I did! I miss being a student because of one reason more than anything – I had a purpose in life.

These days it feels like my purpose in life is to simply get through the day. I realize how depressing that sounds but a big part of being bipolar means battling depression everyday. I am working on it though and going to counselling to try and maintain healthy mental health. My counsellor helps me realize that I belong and that I am contributing by reminding me of things I already know but when depressed seem to forget. She reminds me that I have several very real and positive relationships in my life. And when I inevitably and always commiserate about how I have nothing going for me, she has me focus on these relationships as well as the many things I do, such as volunteering at the Cat Adoption Center and the Art store. My depression tells me this is not enough and that I will never be as successful as when I was a student. I am working on understanding that I am doing the best that I can do at this current moment in time.

A very important aspect of mental health is having a sense of self. I feel as though in the past few years I have lost myself. I identified strongly with being a student and I was extremely successful at it. I got straight A-‘s, created and directed a visual arts group on campus, wrote for the student newspaper in the Arts section, and volunteered often at a local art gallery in the community. I felt on top of the world and in charge of my destiny working towards my goal to have a career in the Arts. Unfortunately in my fourth and final year of a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Art History and English combined, I experienced the onset of Bipolar disorder and my first manic psychosis (I would have another a few years later). This derailed my education and changed the way I identified myself. I started to see myself as only a young mentally ill woman.

I became so depressed that I did not leave my bed for months (literally months!). I was then hospitalized for depression. I lost the one thing I could depend on to be successful at which was my education. Suddenly, I had a new version of myself to reconcile with and I did not like this new self at all. It caused mental turmoil that I still struggle with today. I had to deal with the fact that I was Bipolar. I felt the stigma that comes with being Bipolar not only from others, but from myself. I genuinely believed once diagnosed that I was “less than.” I was mentally unstable and that is frowned upon in society. I felt like an outcast, like someone who belonged on the fringes. I now realize being Bipolar is only one part of me and that I am actually many things like an animal lover, daughter, art enthusiast, etc.

I am now working on finding myself and that is a key component of good mental health. It is important to continually challenge yourself to explore the many facets of you. It will lead to a better understanding of what it takes for you to maintain mental equilibrium. I am discovering, for example, in order to feel productive that I need to blog, read, write, or create a piece of art. I am starting to explore these things more in order that I may understand myself and what it takes to make me feel good.

I am also starting to reconnect with my previous love of fitness. I used to be an avid runner and gym-goer. After years of being too depressed to even want to work out, I am beginning to go to the gym about three times a week. I am working towards running long distances again and thinking of entering myself into a few community races. I will be working towards my goal to lose the twenty pounds I gained from being depressed for the next couple of months. When I work out I feel ten times better about myself and I love the endorphin high!

Being Bipolar means to me that every day I fight to be mentally healthy. This can mean  going to my doctors appointments or simply doing the things I enjoy. I need to ensure that I am taking my medication regularly and that I am doing things that make me feel productive in order to have good mental health. I am a person who values being productive both as a person and in society. This is why when I am not working towards any goals, I am at my most depressed. I have become self-aware and realize this about myself now and so can take steps to avoid it. Being Bipolar means I have obstacles to overcome but the disorder does not define me. I am not Bipolar disorder rather Bipolar disorder is a part of me.

The most important thing to remember is you are not alone and that everyone struggles with mental health at some point in their lives. I want to share my story so others know that they are not the only ones. This week is important to shine a light on a common issue but one that seems less talked about – our mental health. It is arguably one of the most important aspects of our lives and yet we are made to feel ostracized when bringing it to the discussion table. We all want to believe everyone else is perfect and that we struggle alone. This mentality needs to stop and more people need to stand up and say “hey, I understand, I struggle with that as well.” But for now a week dedicated to mental health awareness is a good start and I think it is an awesome thing for CMHA to host.

Remember you are not alone and  a mental illness does not define you.

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