Being a mental illness advocate, blogger, and speaker is a fascinating career. For the most part, I enjoy it and I am quite good at it. I like challenging people’s perceptions of what it means to live with bipolar and anxiety disorder, I like providing education and insight, and I like the change I see in people when they have a better understanding.
Openly discussing mental illness, including my own lived experience with bipolar and anxiety, has a great benefit to society. More often than not, the public sees people with mental illness at their worst. The media leads with examples of the mentally ill acting bizarre, being arrested, being violent. In short, they show us in crisis. The common stereotype portrays us while we are at our sickest points, when everything that could go wrong has.
My message is, and presumably always will be, a message of realistic optimism. I don’t deny that the worst case scenarios occur. I embrace them. I own them. I talk about my own worst case scenarios and all of the many times I failed to be the person I wanted to be.
And then I leave people with the impression that I will never go back. And it gets worse. In my writing, speeches, interviews, and so forth, I leave the impression that I beat this terrible illness and I am home free, free of symptoms, setbacks, and mistakes. One time, I came right out and said, “I don’t think about bipolar and anxiety every day. I just lead a perfectly normal life.” This is, almost entirely, an outright lie.
I am NOT an Example of Perfect Bipolar Recovery
Without actually saying it, I am saying, “Look at me! I am an example of perfect recovery from bipolar and anxiety disorder!.”
But I’m not and since I don’t believe myself when I say it, I can’t imagine that my audience is fully on board either. But, like me, they want to believe me. They want it to be true.
There isn’t a cure for bipolar and anxiety disorders. I am honest about experiencing symptoms. I explain I have highs and lows and struggle with anxiety, but I am equally quick to offer a joke, “hey, it’s just life, it’s just me, and it doesn’t affect me negatively.” My favorite phrase to help sweep it all under the rug is, “It is what it is.”
And when I am well, I mean every word of it. I see nothing but sunshine. I take my medicine, I go to therapy, and I live my life. I work hard to educate, motivate, and inspire. I want to show people the other side of the spectrum with mental illness, that there is something other than the negative stereotypes.
To combat the very negative stereotypes, I aim to be very positive. There is wisdom in this plan; I know this. The media and rumors aren’t working to make negative stories more positive, much in the same way that I’m not making my positive story more negative.
Even when I am in a bad way, I will pretend I am not when I interact with the public. I am generally honest with my friends and family, but I keep my current struggles with bipolar and anxiety very private most of the time.
My Bipolar and Anxiety Disorder Aren’t About You
Because it isn’t about me. It’s about convincing society that there is hope and that people deserve dignity and respect. It’s about letting people know that those of us with mental illness achieve great things in spite of our struggles.
Some days, however, I sit alone with my thoughts, staring blankly, shutting out the public world, and only interacting with a few close friends. Sometimes, I cry and beg the universe to make it stop. I get agitated, annoyed, scared, and the occasional suicidal thought pops into my head. The paranoia grips my body and I am paralyzed mentally and somewhat physically. It is the opposite of who I am when I am on stage.
The world needs hope and understanding about mental illness and I want to be one of the people who provide it. It isn’t just my chosen career; it is my life’s work.
I know my audience isn’t fooled. I know they aren’t, because I wouldn’t be. And because no one – even those without mental illness – is ever positive all the time. We all have bad days, self-doubt, and bad moments.
But more than that, I think my audiences understand why I put on a game face. I do it because it’s necessary for everyone to see something other than that standard media version of mental illness.
And if that means I have to hide my real feelings for a time, if that means presenting a Gabe Howard that is, at that moment, utterly fake, then I have to own that. I’ll be a hypocrite as long as something good comes out of it.