We're Survivors, Not "Sickos"

I want a president who applauds my fight against mental illness.

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Illustration by Allegra Lockstadt

I was a junior in high school when I started to notice something was wrong. I would get overwhelmed for no reason, or look at a cloudy sky and have this vague premonition of disaster. I would worry my parents would be involved in some horrible accident, or I'd worry something bad would happen to me. I was young and healthy — a pescatarian since birth and something of a jock — yet at the slightest bit of feeling unwell, I was certain I would have a heart attack and collapse. I assumed that I had some form of a terminal illness that my doctor could not possibly detect from a routine physical.

Then I started spending money on things I didn't need or even want. During the holidays, I would buy gifts for multiple people, classmates I didn't even spend time with outside of school. I was experiencing extreme anxiety all the time, and so my doctor put me on an antidepressant, and I started to feel better. Until I felt much, much worse.

There was someone I liked, and I thought he liked me too. It turned out he didn't. I remember crying and crying, feeling totally unmotivated and not wanting to go to school or see my friends. I began skipping meals, and I lost weight. I started hinting to my mom that I might abuse my antidepressants — I felt terrible and just wanted to feel better and stop the emotional pain. My mom was beside herself. She knew something was taking hold of me that was beyond my control and hers.

So she took me to the hospital, which was terrifying: giving up my clothes, being put in a room with no windows, no TV, nothing to read, and listening to the screams from the rooms nearby. I had emotionally been feeling alone; now physically I was alone. I was expected to stay in my designated room and not leave it unless it was to use the shared bathroom. Nurses and doctors would come into my room, check my vitals, and ask me a seemingly simple question: "Why are you here today?" And I couldn't answer them, because I wasn't sure I belonged there. At that age, I thought people go to the hospital because they are sick or in pain — they had a heart attack, or broke an arm — and then magically, when they exit those same doors they had entered, they feel better. I didn't understand it then, but now realize I was where I should be. I was sick. I was in pain. It was just invisible.

The doctors there told me I had bipolar disorder, which is categorized as a severe mental illness. I didn't know what to think. How do you process that you have a mental illness that will affect the rest of your life when you're only eighteen years old?

That was almost ten years ago, and I'm really proud of how hard I've worked and how far I've come since then. I still experience the highs and the lows. I always will, and I can't afford to be in denial about that. But I've come to be self-aware, so if I begin having certain thoughts or behaviors that could be detrimental to my well-being, I can take action to prevent them from getting worse. I've learned the importance of routine — exercising, eating a balanced diet, having a consistent sleep schedule, and having open communication with my therapist and psychiatrist. With all of this in place, I was able to graduate from college. Now I have a great job with a company I love, doing work I'm passionate about to expand renewable energy.

I've still told almost no one that I have bipolar — just my family, my managers at work, and a few best friends. Ever since I've been diagnosed, it's like I'm carrying this secret, because I'm so afraid that people will find out and think I'm not smart or competent.

But today, I'm telling you. Because we're just a few weeks away from an election that could change the way we deal with mental health in this country.


Only one candidate — Hillary Clinton — actively recognizes that we need to do more not just to treat mental illness, but to eradicate the stigma around it. She understands that mental illnesses so often begin in childhood and wants to help people get diagnosed and treated before they're in crisis, which would have made a big difference in my life. She wants to integrate physical-health and mental-health services so that people with mental illnesses don't end up in the criminal-justice system and, when they do have encounters with law enforcement, she wants those police officers to have been trained to de-escalate situations without the use of force. And she wants to make it easier for people with mental illnesses to get jobs and housing, because she knows there's more to our lives than access to treatment.

The other candidate? He calls us "sickos." He's actively perpetuating the myth that people with mental illnesses are violent, and that's not true at all. The truth is we're more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators. I am disgusted at Trump's statements about mentally ill women: he has said that "deeply troubled" women are more sexually gratifying to men. This talk is offensive and should be denounced. I am appalled by the way he speaks about veterans who have PTSD. He claims they're not "strong" and they "can't handle" combat.

This kind of talk just perpetuates the stigma that's already attached to mental health, and I believe stigma is deadly because it prevents us from talking openly about the issue, even though it affects almost everyone. Nearly one in five Americans will experience a mental illness in any given year.

What's more, suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death in the United States. By not addressing the stigma and not continuing to make health care more accessible and affordable, we will keep losing people.

I am fearful of a Trump presidency. With the Obama administration, we have made progress on mental-health issues — those of us suffering can no longer be denied health-care coverage due to preexisting conditions. While Hillary Clinton will continue Obama's legacy, Trump has vowed to do away with the Affordable Care Act, which would leave millions of mentally ill Americans vulnerable.

Donald Trump thinks having a mental illness is a sign of weakness, but I believe that's the furthest thing from the truth. I have days when this internal voice tells me, You're stupid, no one likes you, you're ugly. I have to fight with everything I have just to make it to tomorrow. And my ability to fight for my life is a strength — it is admirable and should be applauded. Knowing that my president is cheering me on helps this disease feel a little less lonely.

Lizzie Gionfriddo is a graduate of Central Connecticut State University and works at C-TEC Solar. She formerly worked for Mental Health Connecticut.