The Riddle of Resilience

When I’m feeling well, I feel very resilient, but when I’m not—when depression sets in as it inevitably does— I feel weak, like I’ve failed to stay well and I should have known better. I think, “How could I let this happen? Why didn’t I practice my coping skills better? How did I miss the warning signs?” I see others show remarkable resilience through unimaginable losses, severe illnesses, major defeats. I envy them as they bounce back or pivot or at least maintain a positive attitude. I think back to all the struggles and challenges I’d endured before my break—a chaotic childhood filled with divorces, arrests and restraining orders, bankruptcy at 22 due to cosigning with parent, father’s incarceration, three broken engagements, etc. I took it all in stride, barely missing a day of work. I prided myself on my resilience. Nothing seemed to bring me down until a toxic work environment and a cruel supervisor pushed me to the breaking point.

Now I can’t seem to bounce back, pivot, or think positively about anything. What happened to that resilient young woman who took everything in stride? My brain spins in an endless negative loop on a perfectly normal day. It can take the most positive event and turn it into gloom and doom. The slightest thing can set me back and undermine my confidence and worth. It’s like a dam in my brain has broken and it can no longer hold back the flood of negativity. Everyone around me seems to handle life with such grace, productivity, and positivity. I feel weak, lazy, vulnerable, embarrassed, ashamed, scared. I should be more productive, more grateful, more resilient—better.

And yet bipolar disorder is a brain disease. It clouds perceptions and disguises lies as truth. Maybe resilience looks differently for a bipolar person. Maybe resilience is getting up in the morning when a 100 lb weight is holding you down. Or showing up to an event when you want to isolate at home or finishing an assignment when your brain isn’t working.  It makes no sense to compare my resilience to someone who doesn’t suffer from a brain disorder. A person with lung cancer will most likely not breathe as well as someone without it. It’s no weakness on that person’s part; it’s the nature of the illness. That person can try and try to breathe better, but it’s not going to happen. They can utilize tools that will help them to breathe easier, but they’re going to struggle to do it on their own. Isn’t the same true for bipolar? I can try and try to stay positive, to not let something get to me, but my brain will go there anyway. The brain can’t think and process things well if it’s sick so I have to use coping skills, medication, therapy to help me breathe easier, too.  

It turns out my resilience shows the most when I’m not well. It takes strength to ride out the long and dark days of depression. It takes optimism to maintain a shred of hope when the brain tries to convince you it’s hopeless. It takes persistence to keep going when your body and brain want to give up. Resilience is shown in all kinds of ways and those with mental health conditions model resilience every day of their lives.

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