“But You Don’t Look Disabled...” : My Invisible Body Politic

As someone with a mental health issue, I’ve heard countless times things such as “But you don’t look disabled or unwell” or even “things are so great in your life, why would you be sad?”. The people that say those things to me are right, I don’t look disabled, or even unwell.

I’m lucky enough to be able to live a seemingly ‘normal’ life; at least to an outsider. However, as those who know me well understand, my life is far from normal. The fact that I’m on sick leave from my PhD, writing this from my mother’s couch in Sydney, is only one thing that conveys this reality.

I have an illness called Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar Disorder is the name used to describe a set of ‘mood swing’ conditions, the most severe form of which used to be called ‘manic depression’. It’s a medical condition that affects the normal functioning of the brain so that the person experiences extreme moods – very high and over excited, or very low and depressed. The person may be affected so much that he or she experiences the symptoms of psychosis, and is unable to distinguish what is real. In some cases, Bipolar is entirely disabling, but I’ve been lucky enough to stay away from the extreme end of the spectrum, for the most part. In addition to having this illness, I’m a PhD student at the ANU, working with young people and mental health research methods.

To create a better understanding of my, and so many other’s, reality, I’m going to go through a few easy to understand ways that having a mental illness makes my life different. Hopefully it will give you pause to think about your own life, or that of your friends’. These issues are more common than you think.

1)   Medical    appointments

At times the rounds of psychologist appointments, psychiatrist appointments, GP appointments and goodness knows what other specialists can seem endless. Sometimes it’s just the monetary drain that’s overwhelming. This has been most apparent to me since trying to keep 9-5 hours whilst completing my PhD. I spend, on average, half a day a week away from the office getting to medical appointments, every minute wishing I were back at my desk working on the thesis I love.

2)   Alcohol

A substance that most university students take for granted, it’s widely accepted that if you’re on medication for a mental illness you generally can’t drink alcohol. Think about that for a minute and realise that this limits a lot of social opportunities. While I can indulge from time to time, I’ve never been to a nightclub and most of my time at college was spent avoiding, not enjoying, parties.

3)   Friends

We all need friends, and most of us are lucky enough to have found a pretty good group of them at the ANU. But when you have a highly variable mood, and a tendency to become very depressed, friends become your life support. This was highlighted incredibly clearly to me when I recently went through a breakup. I find great difficulty in being alone, and have had to rely on my friends more than I’d like to get through it. But, largely because of my mental illness, I had no choice. It was that or the possibility of implosion.

Mental illnesses aren’t a death sentence, but they do change your life and that of those around you. So please, look a little deeper, think a little harder and watch out for those around you. A caring word could save someone’s life.