There were certain things that I knew and understood through my experiences as a clinical psychologist, but it wasn't until I became a patient that I truly understood. Simple things like sitting in the waiting room, the look in someone's eyes as I told them about my symptoms and all the things I had done while manic -- how much it now meant for there to be kindness there, and compassion.
The onset and diagnosis of bipolar disorder changed my life. As an expert on depression and mood disorders, I wrote research papers, interviewed mothers who had struggled with postpartum depression, worked with patients struggling through some of the most challenging circumstances that life could bring.
And yet nothing taught me as much as my own diagnosis.
So many times I had coached my patients to take the medications which their doctors had prescribed. And yet now faced with the same decision, I found myself struggling. I was afraid. I didn't want to take any medications, as much as I knew that I should. I didn't want to experience all the side effects, didn't want to experience the unknown.
As a clinician, I had read the literature on stigma and could explain its emotional and societal impacts in great detail. And yet now diagnosed with a disorder -- one with which I myself held no negative associations -- I began to understand issues of stigma at a deeper, personal level.
Surprisingly, it was the mental health providers that I initially saw who were among the most stigmatizing of my diagnosis. A certain look after reviewing my record, a statement that they don't work with individuals with that diagnosis, a stiffening... The signs were subtle and nuanced, but there, and hurt deeply in ways I had not anticipated, would not have experienced were I not a patient myself.
I began to reflect upon difficulties of navigating the mental health system, began to see how patients could become lost in it, swallowed up in it over time. I had begun this journey as an individual and clinician who was comfortable with my diagnosis, but as I navigated the system, I found I was becoming someone who felt invalidated and unseen. I understood now why some of the patients I had met at the hospital had been frustrated. I understood how much it meant for someone to simply care and to understand, to see me as I was and how hard that was to find.
In some ways, my diagnosis of bipolar disorder has been a gift. It taught me about despair, but it also taught me about hope. It taught me about failure, but it showed me who I was in the face of it. It taught me about courage, and the importance of living a balanced life. Being diagnosed with bipolar has made me a better person and clinician. I relate to life and my patients differently now. I see the darkness, but now too, the beauty of the light. And although there's no turning back, I know that there's always forward, together.