The world of mental health is fraught with fear. For those of us suffering from mental illness, our lives are filled with fear.
As a teenager, overwhelmed with mood swings, yet to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I feared my out-of-control emotions, mostly the bad ones. Anger. Hate. Rage. Anxiety.
My frustrated father used to say, “You must be in control of your emotions; don’t let them control you.” I couldn’t.
Mostly I was a sweet, loving daughter. But sporadically I had “my moments” when I could be in a bad mood for days. I often ended up yelling at the people I loved most. I grew up petrified of my mind and what it could do. Even when I wanted to stop being angry, I couldn’t.
Even after getting diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my early 20s, I still lived with fear. I could not get health insurance before the advent of Obamacare in 2012, as my illness was considered a pre-existing condition.
I feared getting diagnosed with cancer or another life-threatening disease that would land me in a hospital with hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills I couldn’t pay. I feared I’d be forced to declare medical bankruptcy, destroying my credit for years to come. That would mean I couldn’t rent an apartment, take out any kind of loan or get approved for credit cards. Fortunately, that never happened, but I was petrified.
I am not alone in dealing not just with mental illness but the fear that accompanies it. Many people living with a mental illness fear their symptoms, which in the beginning can be hard to control. I and others like me fear losing control over our brains and the side effects of medication like gaining weight. We are frightened by the idea that friends, family or bosses will find out about our diagnoses and think we are weird, strange, unlikeable or crazy. We fear suicidal thoughts.
My mother, a marriage and family therapist, reminds me that everyone fears something in their lives and recommends those fears be shared with a therapist or even just a friend because talking about a fear can alleviate it and maybe even prove it is unrealistic. If you’re embarrassed to talk to someone, my mother suggests turning to the Internet to research and dismiss the cause of the fear or joining a support group where others share their fears — a stigma-free environment where you can also pick up tips on how to deal with those fears.
But what if the fear isn’t about flying or changing jobs or sleeping alone at night, but about living with mental illness?
Medical professionals aren’t necessarily the best at understanding the fears faced by the mentally ill among us. Explanations are often left to the social workers and therapists who have heard the fears of others, or first-person stories posted on the internet.
My mother feared for me, and twice she sought help at a local support and educational group for family members of those with mental illness. The organization, “Family to Family,” is offered by various Nevada chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, with gatherings led by individuals who have a mentally-ill family member. The idea that my mom was attending one of these meetings to better understand me seemed a little weird, though I was happy she could meet other parents with adult children like me and share experiences.
This is where I’d like to write that I’ve gotten over my fears, but I can’t. I might get over one only to face a new one. My biggest ongoing fear is acknowledging to others that I’m bipolar. One person I never divulge this information to is my employer. Instead, I ask a lot of questions about a company’s medical leave and vacation policy and try to get a picture of my supervisor’s managing style. Are they compassionate? Would they be understanding of my quirks? Will they fire me anyway?
These days I also fear change, even though my mother tells me that making changes in one’s life is often a positive thing. For me, change is scary.
One thing I’ve learned: The more I face my fears, the longer history I have in tackling frightening things, and the more confident I become — slowly but surely. I’ll never live a fear-free life but am better at dealing with the ones I have.
Kim Palchikoff is a social worker based in Reno. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.