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Label Maker

Label Maker
by Donna Louise Shaw

I lift my arm to brush the bangs from my eyes and the sun catches the reflection off my silver bracelet. You squint from the brief pain of sun burning retina, but you wonder what it was that caught your attention to begin with. I watch you look closer at my arm and then you try reticently to regain some composure. You don't want me to see the look of inquisitiveness on your face, but you have noticed that I am not wearing just any silver bracelet, but a Medic-Alert bracelet. I've heard the questions so many times before, I'm just waiting for you to break the silence and ask: "Allergic to penicillin? Allergic to bee-stings? Not epileptic are you?" When I give in to your peering eyes, you tip over my bracelet and the shock registers in those eyes that once wanted to know so much, but now want to remain ignorant. The engraving on my bracelet includes "Wears contact lenses" and "Allergic to Shellfish," but it's the one right at the top that's a show-stopper. It says in capital letters MANIC DEPRESSION. Donna has a mental illness. Donna is to be feared. Is she crazy? Is it catchy? I can assure you the answers are no, but such begins the stigma of having a chronic illness. In our society the persistent myths surrounding these illnesses alienate those of us who suffer from them.

What is manic depression? It is a chronic illness characterized by periods of highs (the manic side of the illness) and periods of devastating lows (the depressive side of the illness). If left undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to lost jobs, broken relationships, even suicide. The dark side of the illness is depression. While I write these words I see you nodding your head in "understanding". You are saying to yourself, "Yes, I know what depression is." I challenge your level of understanding of this phenomenon.

Unless you have walked that mile in someone's shoes, you have no idea what depression feels like. We all feel down once in a while. A relationship breaks up. You get passed over for that promotion. A loved one dies. These are periods of recognizable and "acceptable" sadness. The world at large sanctions your tears, your sadness. You know your days will get better and things will be brighter in the morning.

Depression is distinctly uglier than mere sadness. There is an ominous oppression that hangs over your body over which you have no control. It is like a black storm cloud that descends only on you, while the rest of the world passes obliviously in sunshine. It rains so hard you can't see outside your sphere. The pressure of the storm is so oppressive you can't breathe. You are engulfed with a helpless, hopeless feeling from which there is no escape. People try to enter your world, but there is no door. The alienation grows. Soon you lose your interest in the activities of daily living -- simple things like grooming. Ultimately, you lose interest in life itself. Until you hear the little voices in your head telling you that life would be better without the pain, without the terrible sadness, you have no hope of understanding depression.

As quickly as the door shut on my depression, so now does that same door spring open. I can see in colour again. I can taste food. The depression lifts and I am headed for the other side of the mountain. The journey that takes me to the manic side of the illness is not unpleasant at all. I feel the energy rebounding in my veins again. I want to take on the world. My thoughts race with all the things I'm going to do now that I am free of that void. I start reading a few books, knitting a few sweaters, going back to school, working long hours at work, scrubbing behind furniture. My body can't keep up with all the racing thoughts my brain is having. I talk fast, I work fast, I do everything fast. Life is like a run-on sentence. Why can't people keep up to me? Why do they look at me strangely? I feel great but they make me feel like there's something wrong. I'm getting irritable now. There's so much I want to do but my "loved ones" want to hold me back -- something about exercising better judgment. Can't they see how creative I am? Can't they hear the laughter in my voice, the song in my heart, the joy in being alive?

They say there is something wrong with me. It's not "normal" to be so up and then so down, over and over, following a cyclical pattern that shows no end. They take me to the proverbial shrink. He says I have a mood disorder. I tell him I think there's something wrong with his mood. I've proven his point. You just can't win.

"You'll feel better after you take your Lithium, Donna. It will smooth out your moods so that you don't get so high or feel so low." How can I tell them that I LIKE being high? The Lithium makes me sick to my stomach. It makes my hands shake. I get confused. I don't get high anymore. The doctors are happy. I have come closer to baseline. That's their fancy way of saying that I have normal moods now; normal to them, not normal to me. I feel dull. I feel robbed of my creativity. I feel robbed of who I am, or rather who I was.

You can put a stigma on me because I have an illness that falls under a category of "mental" illnesses, but I am joined by other vital and creative people like Patty Duke, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Menachem Begin. We can achieve great things in our moments of creativity and inspiration, even if we must pay for them later with devastating depressions. This is what it means to be a manic depressive and to wear that awful bracelet that lets you think you can judge us by our label.

Copyright Donna Louise Shaw, 1996. Email: mama4liam@yahoo.ca.

Modified December 11, 2002

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