By Lauren Linhard – Photos by Kaitlyn Fitzgerald – Makeup by Amy Gunzelman
A college student misses six weeks of classes while living off TV dinners, not wanting to shower or leave his bed. At first glance, you’d probably think of him as a lazy kid wasting his parents’ money. You’d be very wrong.
Meet Mark Mahan – he’s 23 years old, a civil engineer, volunteer firefighter, recreational drone pilot and entrepreneur who also happens to have bipolar disorder.
“Some days you’re as happy as can be and sometimes you can be doing all the things you love and nothing will make you happy,” said Mahan, who was diagnosed in 2016 after four years of incorrect treatment due to a misdiagnosis of depression. “It’s not something you can understand if you haven’t experienced it, but I never want anyone to have to.”
The difference, Mahan said, between regular mood changes people have and being bipolar is the absolute lack of control. Though being on the right medicine has eased the extreme swings, the unknown emotional duplicity is something he will have to live with for the rest of his life.
“You never know what you’re going to wake up to” Mahan said.
Despite his struggle, Mahan wants to share his experience in an effort to help others living with mental illness and to eliminate the stigma associated with it.
“I want to be someone’s Carrie Fisher,” Mahan said. “I want to be somebody who makes other people say ‘I can’ and believe it.”
His cousin, Jamie Schafer, has has issues with anxiety since she was little. She believes the mental illness was originally triggered by an emotional abusive relationship with her biological father.
Schafer’s anxiety has caused her to completely breakdown or shutdown, leading to powerful panic attacks that would leave her entire body exhausted. Within the past few years, she decided it was time to be open about the difficulties she was having and take steps to understand her anxiety.
“People are always trying to ‘fix’ me,” Schafer said. “Just because society paints mental illness negatively doesn’t mean you have to live in that corner. Nothing is wrong with me. This is me. All you have to do is be there.”
The same negative rhetoric is often applied to addiction as well, said Rissa Chiasson, who is now six years sober following a heroine addiction. People think of addicts as weak people who give in to temptation, are homeless living under a bridge or been abused their whole lives, but addicts are just normal people dealing with a mental illness, she said.
When Chiasson started rehab, she was determined to prove she wasn’t an addict, but in the first group session they explained what it felt like to be an addict and she realized it was how she had felt her whole life.
“Addiction doesn’t rely on a drug or a drink, it’s a feeling you are trying to fulfill,” Chiasson said. “There is a hole inside your soul you are consistently try to fill with something – someone with addiction can get addicted to anything.”
Chiasson said recovering addicts refer to addiction as a demon inside your head – which is what a mental illness is. It’s something you have to watch over and be aware off, but it doesn’t mean you’re broken, Chiasson added.
For Army veteran Kyle Hopkins, however, broken is a term he jokingly uses to describe his body. After a year deployment in Iraq, Hopkins returned to civilian life with severe hearing loss, a tear in his shoulder, three herniated discs, a bone spur in his hip, shrapnel in his left leg and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“It’s an instinct that’s imbedded in you by this point,” Hopkins said. “You’re in go mode, ready to kill shit, a war zone frame of mind. It was a lot worse when I first got back, but I have a solid support group and I don’t let it stop me from living my life.”
The stigma around PTSD is two-fold, Hopkins said. Anyone who seeks help for it while in the Army is immediately pushed to the side and given some desk job, but when they come home with PTSD people call the behavior crazy because it’s difficult to empathize with.
“It’s not something I’m typically open about,” Hopkins said of his PTSD, “but I want other veterans out there, anyone with a mental illness really, to know they are not alone. We’re here to help each other.”
From the author: Having a mental illness does not define someone, it is simply part of them. That is what I’ve been telling myself for months as I learn to handle a double diagnosis of anxiety and depression.
This project was inspired by all the times I’ve been told I shouldn’t feel a certain way, asked what I’m so sad about, why I am so anxious about nothing and by all the times I said these things to myself. I have something inside me I have no control over that society has taught others to doubt, or fear or think less of a person because of it.
I am not alone and I am not the only one looking to change the world’s view of mental illness. Special thanks to all the amazing people who shared their stories and to my awesome team who made this project possible.