May is Mental Health Awareness Month and I can at least do my part by blogging and speaking about my experience with these issues. I talk a lot about eating disorder recovery because I have had a few years of recovery to figure out things that work for me and feel confident that I will fully overcome my struggle. Yet I also struggle with a different mental illness that I don’t often talk about because it can be misunderstood. When I was 17 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My diagnosis is officially type II, meaning that I don’t experience full blown manic episodes, but the depression and swings can be extremely difficult. Balancing medication has taken years to figure out and I still often have to adjust. I have made a lot of life changes that make it possible to sometimes go without medication for a period of time, but I also know when I need a little something to help balance everything in my brain. Some of these changes include sleep, following my meal plan, writing, regular exercise and reaching out to people when I need support. I have come to accept that this is really a chemical issue in my brain and there is nothing “wrong” with me. I used to be very self-conscious of my emotions and how people would perceive me. I didn’t know how to deal with the ups and downs in a healthy way, which ended in the development of shit coping mechanisms like the eating disorder, self-injury, and other destructive habits. I was very good at stuffing my emotions so that people wouldn’t see them, which led me to ignore all my emotions to the point that I no longer knew what I felt anymore. It has taken several years in order for me to even distinguish between certain emotions and sit with them. I have had to learn to experience what I am feeling instead of running to old habits. It may sound odd, but I really didn’t know what I was feeling most of the time except numb or angry. With treatment I have been able to live a healthy life and so do many other people with mental illness. There can be such a large stigma with these disorders and I want to bring awareness to the fact that anyone can be affected and that there should be no shame. I have been extremely lucky to have a supportive family and treatment team and I want to advocate so that others can receive the best care they deserve. The best thing people can do is become more educated about mental health in order to be able to give others the support they need. It is a struggle at times, but I have learned to embrace the fact that I feel so intensely. I may be diagnosed with mental illnesses, but they are not my identity and I am learning to find who I am beneath these labels. If you know someone struggling, please try to see them as a person and not their illness. Find support or more resources from the National Alliance of Mental Illness at http://www.nami.org.