“Wow. You’re the last person I would have expected to have bipolar.”
This is one of the most common responses I get when I share with someone that I live with bipolar.
Feeling the need to hide that fact that I live with mental illness has been a major challenge in my life, and I’m sure my ability to hide it is why people are surprised when I let them in on my “secret.”
Though I’ve had an official diagnosis for less than a year, I’ve known since the time I was 8 years old that something wasn’t “average” about me.
That’s why I’m grateful for people like Erin Lorensen, a childhood friend who made ending the stigma surrounding mental illness her platform in various women’s pageants in the Treasure Valley. Lorensen opened a door for me to learn more by openly sharing her mental health journey and her own bipolar diagnosis.
My pageant “besties” — Lorensen and Kristen Johnson — and I now have created Aspire to Inspire, our way to give back to our community. As one of our Aspire efforts, we are co-producing “This Is My Brave.” This event on Saturday, Feb. 18, is a live presentation of essays, music, comedy and poetry performed about or by 17 Treasure Valley residents living with — or loving someone with — a mental illness.
“This Is My Brave” is a national movement that encourages the understanding of mental illness through storytelling, and the three of us will be sharing our own stories on Saturday with the Boise audience.
Just as I often hear, Lorensen was the last person I would have expected to have bipolar. But it also meant that there was someone else out there that I could relate to. I finally felt safe to seek support. Not that it happened overnight, but with her guidance and the support of my husband, family and friends, I was able to get there.
Finding my truth
I spent my first 37 years of my life without answers. I received my diagnosis on St. Patrick’s Day last year, and I believe I found a pot of gold. The knowledge that I have bipolar finally brought me an answer to why living my life was unbearable about 10 percent of the time. People who have bipolar experience mood swings — often extreme highs and extreme lows — that make it harder to function and cope with life’s daily ups and downs.
Hiding that difficult part of my life is one of the biggest challenges of living with mental illness. For years, I hid my struggles because I felt needy or that I was broken if I admitted that things were not perfect 100 percent of the time. Anxiety drives me to feel as if things should be within my control and that any imperfections are inexcusable, instead of accepting that they just make me human.
The good news is that I now live in the 90 percent zone most of my days. The 90 percent is when I’m the “happy-go-lucky, goal-driven Jessica.” That’s the me that most people know and recognize.
It’s the me that feels like the real me — the part of me that is authentic, nurturing and unfiltered. But it’s also the part of me that can get a little too wrapped up in my interests and unfocused because of my excitement about said interests. It’s also the part of me that is wildly creative and adventurous and helps me experience the world in a positive light.
The 10 percent? Those moments require more energy from me than the 90 percent. The 10 percent is when I’m the “down-in-the-dumps, anxiety-ridden, hyperventilating Jessica.”
That’s the me that lets something as simple as filling out a piece of important paperwork or even looking for my misplaced keys cause me to spin into a downward spiral for an hour or more. All the while, I’m cognizant that more time is spent on the anxiety part of the task than doing the actual task, five times over.
Because one person was willing to share her story, I was able to seek support and find the help to achieve a better balance between the 90 percent and 10 percent. It’s a new journey, and following Erin’s example, I believe that telling my story is an important part of ending the stigma, as well as a way to encourage others to give themselves permission to get help.
After all, a mental illness is just that — an illness like any other. Bipolar and other mental illnesses are treatable. Free yourself from your secret.
Jessica Wyman is an Idaho native, author and speaker. She’s also a certified nutrition coach, yoga teacher and avid bicyclist. Visit her blog at Jessica-Wyman.com for more information.
‘This Is My Brave’
At 7 p.m. doors open for seating; event from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at the Boise State Special Events Center, 1700 W. University Dr., Boise. Tickets are $20 in advance; $25 at the door. For more information, visit thisismybrave.org/events/boise.