I wear glasses. All the time. Anyone can see them. Just look at my face. They’re right there, a beacon, a testimony, a monument broadcasting my inability to see without medical intervention. They are a part of me that shows weakness.
Weakness? Glasses? That seems odd. I mean, lots of people wear glasses, right? And we don’t call them weak. In fact, we pretty much don’t notice them. Glasses are common. They are normal. We don’t give them a second thought most of the time.
I’ve never been teased about my glasses. I guess some people who were unfortunate enough to need vision correction by elementary school may have been teased, called four-eyes or something. I wasn’t. I think most of my generation, Gen Xers, avoided that fate.
Millennials haven’t had to deal with any glasses related mockery at all, I imagine. I know Millennials who wear glasses even though they don’t need vision correction. Glasses, like beards, bicycles, and craft beers, are cool now.
So I guess that weakness thing I mentioned is not particularly accurate. I need vision correction. That’s not a weakness, not a moral failing, not something that marks me as defective. It’s just a thing. Or maybe it ain’t no thang. That use of slang is probably even more dated than the idea that glasses are a bad thing.
I probably needed glasses at about the age of twelve. By sixteen my vision was bad enough that I went for an eye exam and got glasses. It was an issue that became impossible to ignore. I couldn’t recognize my girlfriend’s face in the hall at school between classes unless I was right up close. I couldn’t really see the catcher’s signs when I was pitching, which was probably an even bigger issue for me. My family and I recognized the signs of vision issues and got them corrected. No big deal.
I was symptomatic with bipolar probably by the age of fourteen. These symptoms, at first, were probably not as noticeable as not being able to see well. When they were visible they looked like bad behavior and emotional regulation issues.
I didn’t really know anything about bipolar disorder. What little I did know, and what little my family knew, came from an acquaintance who experienced psychosis and believed that he was working for the FBI. Of course I know now that psychosis is relatively rare with bipolar. Depression is the most common state in bipolar, but it is not as visible as mania and psychosis.
Suicidality is also a common symptom, but passive ideation is easy to hide. I would go home from school and lay down in the middle of the floor in my room wondering what it would like to be lying dead there, and wondering what it would like for someone to find my body. Would they notice? Would they care? My general belief was that they wouldn’t. No one ever knew any of that because I would always get up before anyone came in. Because I never shared this behavior or the thoughts behind it no one ever knew.
But there were more visible signs. I started struggling at school. I started having angry outbursts. This can be normal teenage behavior, but it was far more severe than that. I never really understood how much more severe it was until my children became teenagers. I have three teens and none of them behaved in the manner that I did.
I punched holes in walls. I kicked holes in doors. I broke them down. At one point the door on my room was replaced with a much heavier one that I could not destroy. That did not stop me from trying. I once gave myself a concussion on that door by headbutting it repeatedly when kicking and punching made little to no impact.
I punched through the window to the front door at our church one time. Another time I came to believe (wrongly) that my dad did not love me. Because he had a car that he seemed, in my disordered mind, to love more than me, I kicked the shit out of the bumper of the car.
I showed poor impulse control and very bad judgement. The worst was probably when I drove my car 120 miles per hour on US60 coming home from visiting a girlfriend who lived in Louisville. It was exciting to go that fast but that wasn’t my only reason for doing it. I was running late for my curfew and that seemed like the best way to try to fix the situation. I ended up being caught in a roadblock as I honestly did not see the police car attempting to pull me over. I guess I had blinders on.
Later I went to college and flunked out. My first semester I did not pass a single class. I just couldn’t bring myself to care enough to go to class. When I did manage to drive to campus I became so crippled with anxiety that I could not get out of the car.
There were countless other warning signs. I don’t want to throw my family under the bus. Sure, they could have seen the signs for what they were, but they didn’t know the half of what I was experiencing. I was able to hide a lot of my symptoms. I managed to do that for years.
But I knew what I was experiencing. If they should have known then I should have doubly known. I just didn’t understand. No one ever talked to me about mental illness. Not in high school. Not in college. Not ever. I knew nothing about bipolar. Not in high school, not in college, not until I was in my thirties. Mental illness was, and is, so stigmatized that there is little open communication about it. And when there is open, public discourse about mental illness it is always about the connection between mental illness and violent crimes, a connection that does not even exist.
It was stigma that kept me from seeking help. It was stigma that kept me from opening up about my struggles. It was stigma that kept me ignorant about mental illness. It was stigma that kept my family from recognizing my symptoms. It was stigma that led to my family having to endure my irresponsible spending, employment instability, and emotional volatility. It was stigma that caused me to be symptomatic for twenty years before receiving an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. It was stigma. Plain and simple.
There’s no stigma about glasses. There’s no stigma about vision issues. Everyone understands what it’s like to not be able to see without corrective lenses. Education isn’t necessary. Behavior isn’t an issue. It isn’t moralized. You show signs of needing vision correction, you go get your eyes checked, you go get glasses. Full stop.
Mental health should be this way. With a little education the early signs of mental health disorders could be noticed. With a little more cultural conversation mental health disorders could be understood. With a little more awareness mental health could avoid being about behavioral issues and moral failings. It wouldn’t take much. There is no reason mental health has to be stigmatized.
No reason at all.
This is why I speak. This is why I write. This is why I advocate. This is why I am who I am and why I do what I do. This is it.
Mental health screenings should be as “normal” as vision screenings. No one should have to live the twenty years I lived without a diagnosis and treatment.