I’m not going to let my disorder define me

We live in a land where no one’s life is free of trauma. When I first came out of the bipolar closet, I was overwhelmed by the support I received. I woke up to messages of solidarity every day.

The response made me hopeful about our future as a country.

So many reached out to me; family members, who I’d least expect to be proud of me for what I did, called me to tell me that they were.

The world became a better place.

Many could truly empathise, not just sympathise. Yet, there were those who lashed out at me, mocked me, or suggested I get locked up. I became an easy target to deflect on, worthy only of mockery.

When I discovered that the writer of an anonymous blog who suggested that I be locked up was actually someone who outwardly supported mental health awareness, I was upset not by what people had to say about me, but about the hypocrisy and hate that flourished.

The tweets calling me a lunatic or a psycho, speculating on everything I’ve ever said by connecting it to my disorder, stereotyping me, reducing me to a statistic, etc. were not as upsetting as the silence around them.

Ableism is no joke. It cripples those who are subjected to it. Being called crazy, psychotic, etc. leaves long term negative effects and certainly silences anyone who fears that label.

Many young people contact me and ask if they should tell others about their disorder. They always receive a firm no.

Not everyone is strong enough.

A handful supported me, tirelessly replying to my attackers about their misconceptions, sending me messages of love and support and I will always be grateful to them. Unfortunately, it seems that the vast majority are happy to condemn ableism in theory, but not in practice.

It’s not enough to just say that making jokes about mental health isn’t acceptable. It’s important to not do the same if you wish to be an ally.

Living in Pakistan, I wouldn’t have written about my mental health issues had I not been ready for the hate that I knew was inevitably coming my way. It was very easy to dismiss it when it came from strangers. But, perhaps I wasn’t ready for the pain of it coming from the ones I love.

Over the years, I’ve had to cut out family members who have used my disability as an excuse to demean, mock or silence me.

One family member is heavily addicted to multiple substances and uses me to deflect from her own issues. Another didn’t like my feminist perspective and that alone was reason to declare me “mad”.

I have not just been verbally and psychologically bullied, I am often seen as a liability if I apply for a job for example, or a scholarship. It feels cruel to be labelled a statistic but I’ve also been very lucky in finding people to work with who don’t stereotype, who aren’t ableists and who don’t see me as my disability.

The vast majority who attack people brave enough to publicly speak about mental health issues are simply deflecting because they don’t want to deal with their own mental health issues. They deeply resent me for not letting my disorder define me.

Hence, I have come to realise that my mockers too, are wounded. Stuck in a rut, they are unable to move past their own pain. How can I feel anything but sympathy for them? I know them intimately. I was one of them.

I have an excellent support system, a very large and loving family who will always be there when I need them, fantastic doctors and therapists, as well as the resources to be able to obtain any help or medication I need. I also have a most precious gift, one that so-called “normal” people often lack: rationality. No one can take that away from me.

To my bullies and haters, to the intolerant, to the bigots:

I have nothing but pity for you because I know history won’t be kind to you. How can I then possibly hold a grudge against ignorance?

In trying to constantly break me, you have unknowingly given me a precious gift and I thank you for it. You have shown me who my true friends are.

I forgive you and I sincerely hope you can heal like I have, free from all your demons.

Written for Dawn.

Advertisements

Being Bipolar

From the latest edition of Paper magazine

Growing up, I aspired to be rich, successful and famous. I dreamt of becoming a human rights lawyer who would fight all wrongs against humanity and be lauded for it. I also wanted to be a famous novelist, rich enough to own her own island. Like all children of rich, ambitious parents, I equated financial success with happiness. As an adult, I realised how wrong I was. Currently, I’m not working myself into the ground and as a result, am always blissfully broke. Money comes in, money goes out, but slowly it’ll start to trickle in more. Instead of freaking out about not being able to make any savings at the moment, I remind myself daily, how grateful I am that I’m happy. And that’s what matter, that’s what counts.

At the age of 24, I started to take my mental health issues very seriously. I was always a troubled person so when my doctor confirmed for me that years of depression were a misdiagnosis and that I was really bipolar, it all started to make sense. Weird, too intelligent for my own good with an imagination that had a life of its own, I was always living on two planets at once: this world, where I physically belonged but didn’t love, and my own little planet in my head. I hated this vicious, cruel world and aspired to change it. I didn’t belong but I desperately wanted to. I hated this world so much, that the thought of it ending never upset me. The thought of dying and leaving seemed appealing at times. I’ve kept some of the suicide notes I’ve written over the years to remind myself that even when I’ve hit rock bottom, I’ve managed to pull myself up again. They disturb me but they also comfort me and remind me that I’m a survivor and that is something to be proud of.

But I wouldn’t be here, writing this, and sharing my story had it not been for some major life changes and many years of painful therapy. Had I not changed my life, had I not made the effort to overhaul a major part of who I am and taken all the medications, I am convinced I would have been dead. I do not expect you to understand or even comprehend what it is that I go through, but I’m hoping some insight into my condition will help you develop a sense of empathy towards those of us with invisible disabilities.

At the same time as I was being diagnosed and tested for bipolar disorder, I was working at a bank and was downright miserable. I was only working there to please my family who I had a strained relationship with. I desperately wanted my parents to be as proud of me as they were of their “normal” children so even though I was miserable, crying myself to sleep every night and waking up with a sense of dread, I continued. I hated my job and had extreme ethical issues with much of what I was being asked to do and put up with. Other than the work politics, which I later realised was nothing compared to the education industry, being placed in service and treated like an object was dehumanising and made me incredibly angry. Day after day customers got away with abusing me when they were in a bad mood. Aunties got away with grilling me about my love life and marriage plans. Men stood at my desk and stared at me like a sex object. No matter what I wore, no matter how conservative my clothes, I was ogled, glared at, asked out and felt more like a sex worker than a banker. There was nothing I could do. Whenever I attempted to complain, or told my misogynist boss that I wasn’t happy, he told me to suck it up because the customer is always right. I didn’t like him and as a result, when I did something good and was praised for it, it didn’t feel good. It just felt empty.

In order to cope, I started self medicating with alcohol and partied hard to relieve all the stress that had accumulated over the week. Needless to say I did incredibly stupid things that I later regretted and actually had no control over my impulsive need to drink when in the company of drinkers. I only gave up when given a choice: alcohol or mental health. The medications I was taking wouldn’t work if I continued to drink so reluctantly, grudgingly, I stopped. Luckily, they helped control my impulse so I was easily able to say no. I instantly started to feel better. My unquiet mind, with its constantly racing, distressing thoughts, was at peace. I was able to sleep. The ticks in my head didn’t keep me up and the silence allowed me to focus. It was probably the best decision I ever made even though it lost me many friends.

When I stopped drinking and decided I would sort my issues out, I realised what a toxic circle of friends and relatives I had around me. Instead of being supportive, many judged me for not drinking and partying excessively like they would. Indeed they only wanted validation and my refusal to give it to them strained our relationships. Many would get drunk and abuse me, killing off the tiny bit of self-esteem I had built up. They never apologised and eventually, instead of forgiving them for it over and over again, I simply cut them out and decided I didn’t need such people in my life. If people who claim they are friends choose not to support you and deliberately aggravate you, there is either something wrong with them, or they simply are not worth investing in emotionally.

At the same time, I made a major career change. I started teaching, something I never thought I’d do. I had a degree in women’s studies and didn’t think teaching would be a career choice that made me happy. Yet it did. Even though I never loved the environment or politics, I loved teaching. It was immensely rewarding and made me feel good. It also allowed me to be creative and forced me to remain open minded. Through teaching, I could change the world like I had always wanted to. It also inspired me to start blogging and writing on a regular basis.

Because of teaching, blogging and activism, I also met many wonderful people who I am now proud to call friends. The elite bubble I had earlier associated with slipped away into oblivion and there’s no going back. There’s no going back to a culture that I personally find toxic. Most of the elite I know have a sense of entitlement that makes them supremely unsympathetic to the horrific world around them. I have heard them make statements so callous that they have left me wounded. They judge me based on how much money I’m making and most have told me, to my face, that teaching is noble but not enough. They cannot comprehend that the pursuit for money is not something everyone aspires to and they judge those who don’t. They don’t understand any perspectives other than their own, and as a result, I find that culture toxic and intolerant.

Another form of support in my life other than my doctors and family are many other bipolar people around me. I’ve been active on bipolar forums and support groups for many years now and they have served as an incredible form of strength. Therapy, along with medication, is crucial for recovery but doctors can’t always be available, nor is it feasible to rely on just one doctor alone. Support groups are a form of group therapy and we provide each other with a lot of motivation. We keep each other going through the hard days and we all provide support, without judgement, because we can truly understand unlike those who have never experienced severe mood shifts.

I teach critical thinking and believe in constant self-reflection which most people in this country resist. We don’t admit our wrongs. Instead we point fingers and blame others. I honestly feel we suffer from a collective psychosis and if you have mental health issues, this attitude is dangerous. It is dangerous because the process of recovery and learning to cope in this world necessarily requires self reflection and being forced to confront your mistakes. Unless you can do that, you cannot get better. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we aren’t the problem. I know. I’ve been there. But that state of mind, when one is nothing but just a victim, is counterproductive and doesn’t lead to any healing. Instead it only leads to pain, bitterness and anger.

I turn a blind eye to those who judge me for who I am. Years of teaching, writing and part time activism have made me a thick skinned and strong woman who knows her strengths. I’ve also made the effort to study my illness, to understand it, to do what I need to in order to stay functional and happy such as avoiding all triggers. I decline late nights, no matter what, because unlike others, I need a full eight hours of sleep. Those who love me truly understand and do not mind my absence. Without restful sleep, my day is ruined and there’s a danger I will have an episode.

These days I only work part time. I no longer associate with any schools and quite easily gave up a very prestigious teaching position because it was making me miserable. I now work when I can and when I can’t; I do not have to medicate myself into a stupor just to function. I’ve learnt to value and crave stability over financial gain or societal approval. It honestly doesn’t mean much without happiness. Sadly, I still see so many bipolar people stuck in this vicious trap, miserable and in immense pain. As a success story, I’m hoping this inspires them to become pro active and take their life into their own hands. If I can do it, anyone can.

Download PDF: Being bipolar

Paper’s latest issue is available now & also available on ipad.

Mocking Mental Heath Disorders

Some days I fear for the future of a country where the most educated and liberal lack empathy for the disabled. Today someone tagged me on facebook alerting me to an article published in the express tribune today. Because they have removed the article, I am putting screen captures of it as well as the comments.

Headline says lock up the crazy, like we don’t deserve the right to live a life the way “normal” people do. I wonder if the writer knows about the history of mental health disorders and how, for most of human existence, people did just that: “lock up the crazy”. Because society chose not to understand us, they shunned us and put us away, as if we were invisible. And this still exists today in Pakistan. The way we treat mental health patients is appalling and inhumane. The last thing we need is for people to advocate that we deserve to be locked up, even as a “joke”. Some things are just not funny and one necessarily has to lack a sense of humanity to think they are, such as the suffering associated with mental illness.

The evidence provided by the author was the DSM IV, a google book, which was published in 2000. Surely a more current statistic could have been found? Furthermore, the figure seems inflated. I wonder if the author would be kind enough to direct me to the page number where she find this statistic for I can’t find it, nor do I have the time or patience to go through this whole thing to find it.

I also wonder where the author discovered that the above celebrities were sociopaths. Were they diagnosed or is she making a guess? If so, is she simply speculating or making a wild guess? What evidence can she provide other than her own analysis.

Also, please note the language. The author refers to those of us who have mental health issues as “the crazies”. I know I’m not alone in saying that it is offensive, demeaning and rather insensitive to choose this phrase to describe people suffering from illnesses that can be extremely distressing. There are so many people who would like to talk about their plight in public but they don’t because people get away with calling them “crazy” to their face and demeaning them. In the same paragraph, the author uses the words “loco” and “kookoo-ness” as well.

Where to begin with this one… let’s start with the fact that it seems like the writer is racist when she says that Angelina Jolie created “her own little army of coloured kids”. I feel like telling the writer: by kissing her brother, Jolie may have committed incest and you want to declare it offends you then please do so. However, do not assume that incest and bipolar disorder are related.

I am bipolar. I have written about it and come out with it publicly. There are so many celebrities who are actually diagnosed with bipolar disorder who could have been used an example such as Stephen Fry who has made a documentary on what it’s like to be bipolar. Jolie was a ridiculous example because she has never declared herself bipolar and speculating that she is without solid medical evidence is weak reporting.

I also find it offensive that Jolie, first declared bipolar, is then portrayed as a stereotypical “home wrecker”. There is no connection.

Isn’t Meera Jee’s twitter account fake? And weren’t tribune the first to tell us that?

I’m not letting this slide simply because it has been removed because it causes a lot of damage. It triggered me. After reading it, I was crying with rage and I was not alone. There were others with mental health problems who felt horrible, almost punched in the gut. Perhaps this is because we expect better from tribune, but that’s not relevant. What’s relevant is that this piece caused a lot of human suffering and no apologies can make up for the distress many of us felt. I would like to know why this was even allowed to go into print. What is tribune’s editorial policy regarding mental health issues? Does it even exist? If not, then perhaps now is the time to consider one.

I’m not advocating that the writer, Saba Khalid, be fired. But I would like to know if anyone has even reprimanded her or asked her to get some sensitivity training. I’m not going to be judgemental and declare her a racist or someone insensitive to mental health issues. To declare that she should be deprived of her job would make me as bad as the kind of people who advocate that mental health patients be locked up. I want to be better than them.

I want answers. I demand answers. Here is an email I sent to the author, the editors and the life & style desk:

Dear editors and Ms Khalid,

As a person who has bipolar disorder, I found this piece to be in extremely poor taste and I was very upset to read it. I am quite sure that none of you have any idea just how badly people with mental health disorders are treated. It took me 6 years to come out with mine in public, which I did as a blog post on dawn and it was the hardest thing I have ever written. You see, we, the “crazies” as Saba so kindly calls us, are treated quite horribly and mocking us makes things even worse for us.

After reading your piece, I was crying with rage and extremely angry that Pakistan has an educated and liberal class of people who think it’s ok to mock mental health disorders. I would never do so for I was raised by people who taught me that making fun of disabilities is inherently cruel. Picking on the weakest, the most disenfranchised and the disabled is bullying. Furthermore, it shows a severe lack of empathy for the plight of those who suffer from life long disabilities, like me.

I hesitate to tell you I was crying with rage for I fear that may have been your goal: to reduce those of us with mental health disorders to emotional wrecks so we stay away from society. You are, after all, advocating for us to be locked up.

I have a few questions that many people would like answered. I’m hoping you have the courage to reply to a bipolar person since, I’m assuming, you want to believe I’m a knife wielding lunatic who will come kill you. After all, you have asked people to have me locked me. The ignorance amazes me.

  1. Why was this approved? Is it because it’s funny to make fun of the “crazies” as you so sensitively call us? Because it’s ok to pick on the weak & disabled?
  2. Did you assume that people with mental health disabilities wouldn’t object because you know that most of us are too scared to publicly admit we have a disorder?
  3. What evidence does the writer have that these celebs have the mental health disorder she claims? Can I please be provided with the evidence that was used for this piece because it seems like speculation.
  4. Did you speak to any mental health specialists who confirmed you were right?
  5. Do you actually not realise that there is a big difference between drug/alcohol addiction & other mental health disorders?
  6. Are you qualified to write about mental health disorders? And do editors allow just anyone to write about mental health issues? Do you not realise why that is problematic?

I realise the piece has been removed but I still expect an answer and there are many who are demanding answers. I’m asking because I subscribe to tribune and read it daily. One of the main reasons I do so is because it has less triggers for me than most other papers. (Don’t know what trigger is? In that case you shouldn’t have been allowed to comment on mental health issues!) In order to live a “normal” life, I need to avoid triggers and if tribune is going to become a trigger, I need to unsubscribe. Unless tribune can assure those of us with mental health issues that we will not be mocked, we would not like to read it.

I realise that your ideal solution would be to lock me away from the world but that’s not an option. That’s not an option because my doctors and family believe that I can live a full, “normal” life if they support me. And guess what? They are right!

I also wonder where your moral center lies. In a country where rapists are running around free, where murders roam the street without fear, where men subject women to the worse form of violence, you are advocating that, instead, we lock up people with mental health issues. It greatly upsets me.

Looking forward to hearing from you but greatly fearing that no one will bother replying to a “crazy” who should be “locked up” since I assume that means I should be denied all internet access so that I can’t distress the “normal” world.

Regards,

Nabiha Meher

I am well aware that my email is strongly worded and may even come across as emotional. So be it. This is an emotional issue, one that lead to this status update on facebook by my friend Adnan Ahmad: “Dear Express Tribune, When writing *anything* that references mental health, please try to research and vet what you’ve been handed. This is not the 19th century, nor is this the early 20th Century. Malicious mockery of health conditions of which you obviously have no clue about is not funny, nor has it *ever* been. It is mean-spirited, uneducated, and I look forward to the shit-storm that this, and other articles of an equally tabloid nature, will hopefully bring about.”

These are questions that need to be asked and I wrote this email with input from other people with mental health disorders. If the authorities at tribune really do not want to alienate readers with mental health disorders, then we deserve answers.

UPDATE: Express Tribune has issued an apology BUT I honestly believe it is not enough. Is it really too much for me to ask what happened to the writer? I am especially irked that no one is answering this question and I know they will answer IF enough people ask them to.

I’ve also been tweeting Bilal Lakhani, the owner of the publication who, from what I can tell, seems to be very open to ideas. I must add here that I personally find Tribune’s prompt responses quite amazing, especially in a country where most media owners only care for ratings. Kudos to them.

Tribune also seems to be open to training their staff regarding mental health issues. I am incredibly happy to hear such a positive response. This speaks volumes: it says we care about mental health issues. They are not trivial.

Because of this whole fiasco, I have decided that this is something I need to consider doing on a regular basis. My doctor’s words ring in my ear: “you are a success story”. As a success story, I have the power to make a difference. As a person who is willing to speak up in public about what it is like to be bipolar, I feel like I should try and reach out to as many people as I can so that others lives are made better. If there’s anything I learn on an almost daily basis, it is this: this country desperately needs mental health awareness.

We live in trying times. We live in a war torn land, at war with itself, at war with everyone else, never at ease, always craving for a peace that never comes. Depression rates are off the charts and thanks to our love for inbreeding, mental health problems exist in numbers higher than we want to believe. There is no one I know who hasn’t been effected.

There are so many people out there who are unwilling to speak up and “educate” others about our illnesses and I do not blame them. I do not blame them because of the incredibly horrible judgement that comes along with admitting one has a mental illness. One necessarily has to develop very thick skin in order to deal with it and not everyone can, nor should everyone have to.

So I’m now brainstorming ideas on what to do and how to go about this. Because of my disability, I cannot have a full time job. As a result, I cannot do this as volunteer, or any unpaid work on a regular basis. The goal is to be able to speak to all sorts of people, in all sorts of fields, and clear up misconceptions about mental health issues. I would personally be very interested in media training and speaking to students. Anyway, watch this space. Something pretty amazing may just come out of all this.

Being bipolar in Pakistan

First published in Dawn blog.

I suffer from a disability called bipolar disorder, something that 2.4 per cent of the global population suffers from. For most of us, it is a genetic disease, but there are others who don’t have a family history of it. It manifests itself by making an individual feel extreme highs and lows in cycles. It is also varied in intensity and has two classifications: bipolar I and bipolar II.

Being bipolar in Pakistan is not easy. Mental health disorders in this country are taboos that lead to discrimination which we face increasingly by the day. And because our disability cannot be seen, it is often dismissed as a lie or an excuse not to work. The very same people who imply that it’s possible for us to “snap out of it” would never dream of telling someone in a wheelchair to stop whining and walk.

Day by day, we hide our pain, the obsessive thoughts in our head and make excuses that are lies just so that we are not judged. Some of us don’t disclose this to our employers until we’ve been hired because we know that if we do, we may not be hired at all. More often than not, we never disclose. We pretend to be what we are not and over the years, it takes a huge toll on our well-being.

Can you imagine being in our shoes? Can you imagine a day when you’re so depressed that you’re unable to move, let alone get out of bed to brush your teeth or eat? Can you imagine being able to convince yourself that killing yourself would be the best thing you could do for your own family so that they don’t have to put up with your wretched existence? Can you imagine being so elated that you actually believe jumping off a roof will not harm you at all? Can you imagine being so manic that your totally irrational and incomprehensible thoughts actually make sense to you – Can you possibly imagine it at all unless you’ve been through it? We live in hell, which is why we mostly don’t fear death, perhaps this is why we have the highest suicide rate.

While I cannot speak on behalf of all females who have bipolar disorder, I do believe that we face similar discrimination and challenges. Bipolar patients necessarily need support from their family and friends, but in our culture, most families are not willing to accept that we have a problem. There is a lot of denial because of the huge stigma associated with mental health disorders. Many times, it is important for families to convince a bipolar person to seek help for the one who is suffering is not willing to acknowledge that he/she has a problem.

Because we live in a very superstitious culture where religion is given greater value than medical interventions, too many bipolar people are only diagnosed much later than they should be. People who are mentally unwell are usually taken to shrines. Since there is no visible “illness”, it is also considered a “curse” due to black magic. If someone is suffering from a mental health illness, it is assumed that they are possessed by a jinn.

Psychiatrist Dr Nusrat Rana, who runs the Punjab Institute of Mental Health, has had patients whose arms have been cut off by pirs who were trying to exorcise jinns out of them. She treated a woman whose face was scared by a faith healer with hot tongs when she was hysterical. By going through so much trauma, both physical and emotional, most develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which further exacerbates their ordeal.

Others marry off their daughters thinking that marriage will “cure” her, only to see that her bipolar disorder has been exacerbated by childbirth and postpartum depression or mania. If her condition results in a divorce, which is mostly the case, she is further shunned and mistreated. This “shaadi kaara doh” advice is also given by doctors, linking it to conversion disorder, which according to Dr Nusrat Rana, is a new version of hysteria, the archaic “wandering womb” syndrome.

As a teenager, I used to hallucinate and see black giants. Even though my mother belongs to a family that manufactures and sells pharmaceuticals, she was convinced I was seeing jinns. She really thought prayer and rituals would solve my problem but they never did. I know I was hallucinating because all the giants went away once I started taking medications that stabilised my brain chemistry. I no longer see things that are not there, nor do I hear voices like I used to. It’s not my mother’s fault that she believed religion could solve my problem and I do not judge her for it. She is, after all, a product of the society she comes from and has been incredibly supportive over the past few years.

This misconceptions regarding bipolar disorder and horrific stereotypes perpetuated by the media, as well as, people in general make having an unseen disability worse than it should have to be. Nor should it necessarily be seen as a “curse” for it can be a gift. Some of the most creative geniuses had bipolar disorder such as Virginia Woolf.

Stephen Fry openly talks about it and has even made a documentary about what it is like to be bipolar. Studies show connections between bipolar disorder and creativity and many lists of famous bipolar artists, writers etc have been compiled which shows just how much those of us with this “disease” have contributed to the world.

Had it not been for bipolar people, the world would have been a duller place and I keep thinking, perhaps just to console myself, that it surely must have evolved for a good reason.