Denial has been my primary coping mechanism. I have so much experience with it; it’s become a talent. I think that I hide my bipolar disorder so well, most people would never know. I know exactly why I've been in denial about it; in fact, I’ve rationalized my approach to myself many times. Manic depression is serious stuff. Mania can turn into psychosis. Psychosis can mean losing touch with reality, losing control over yourself, losing your independence (being hospitalized or committed), or even losing your life. I have been in terror of the prospect of losing my life to suicide since my brother took his life. We were so much alike, and the disease has felt like a death warrant since then.
I am also afraid of being the type of person who can’t take care of herself, who is in and out of institutions, who can't hold down a job, and who can't function normally in society. In short, someone who does not have control over their life, someone who is controlled by mental illness. I am also afraid of the stereotypes about manic depression, and that if people knew that about me their perceptions would be yet another impediment to my functioning. I thought that if I ignored that part of me, I could ignore the difficulty it caused, thereby making my life a little easier. Besides, it’s easier to conceal something from other people when you’re also concealing it from yourself. On top of all that, why is it even fair that I have this disease? Haven’t I suffered enough? How fair is it that this disease, which I inherited from my sadistic father, stole my brother from me and could take my life as well? So I rejected the very idea that I was bipolar, not because it made any sense, but because it was unfair.
I started to realize the folly of that sort of thinking the first time I saw my current psychiatrist. He reminded me that bipolar disorder is progressive disease, and that the likelihood and severity of a relapse increased the longer I was not on medication. He stressed the importance of getting on medication and staying on it as a preventative measure, because treating a manic or depressive attack is much harder than preventing one. I finally had to admit to myself that his approach made more sense than mine did. His plan was to reinforce a building in an earthquake prone area, while mine was to pretend the danger didn't exist. Now that I'm on medication, the chances are actually greater that I won't become psychotic or severely depressed and lose my life.
I'm sure that I learned to be in denial as a kid. Growing up, I was under attack all the time, so the best I could do was survive. I couldn't process my feelings while I was in such a dangerous, unsupportive environment. Denial is a psychological defense to reduce anxiety while under threat. Denial is also the first stage of the grief process (or loss, whether minor or huge). The five stages are: 1. denial, 2. anger, 3. bargaining, 4. depression, and 5. acceptance.
When I was able to escape my abusive situation, I just wanted it to be over and done. I never processed my feelings; I stayed in denial. I had spent my entire childhood that way, and I had no idea how to deal with my feelings. I remembered the terror, and pain, and rage that tore me apart. I felt like my negative feelings were so intense they would destroy me. Again, I thought it was unfair for me to have to go through any more grief and pain since I wasn’t the one who caused it. I thought if I let myself have any feelings about it I would continue to be a victim.
Now I realize, I have suffered quite a bit of loss, and the fact that it wasn’t my fault doesn’t make it go away. I lost a normal, supportive childhood, free from violence and abuse. I lost the ability to trust and feel good about my body and my gender from the sexual abuse. I lost my mental health. I lost my brother, who meant the most to me in this world. I thought that acknowledging and dealing with my feelings just added to my burden. Now I'm realizing that the only way I can lessen my burden is to work through the feelings I have. My feelings are not the enemy, and having feelings doesn’t make me weak, or a victim.
Since I am only in stage one, I have plenty of good times with my uncomfortable feelings to come.