Different, Not Less

It took me years to say this out loud. I suffer from Bipolar I mood disorder. I have taken cocktails of mood stabilizers, anti-anxiety, depression, and sleep medication. I am Robert Escalante. Son of a father with the same illness.  I suffer from Bipolar I disorder—and I am no longer ashamed.

“Crazy. Dramatic. Exaggerated. Just sad. Attention-seeking. Weak.”

These words were what one could expect to hear when opening up about having a mental illness while growing up in a small city in the province. Suffice it to say, it was never really an issue properly understood in Bacolod City among my family and friends.

Bipolar I disorder, formerly known as being manic-depressive, is something that is widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. Commonly, people use the word “bipolar” to mean someone who often experiences mood-swings. While partly correct, it fails to encapsulate all that it is. For myself, as an example, the “swings” aren’t as abrupt as one might imagine. I experience long bouts of mania (i.e. being talkative, bubbly, and energetic) and even longer moments of being in a depressive state (i.e. lethargy, fatigue, sleeplessness and negativity). I do not switch from happy to sad, and from sad to happy in mere moments—it is periodic.

A brief background. I grew up in Bacolod City, a place that I used to love but one that I have not visited in over 2 years. Over the span of 8 years, my father’s illness—also Bipolar I—has destroyed any semblance of a family that would have been possible. The City of Smiles, Bacolod is called, is a city full of memories of my mother crying, my siblings impatient to leave for college, anxious days waiting for the next episode of emotional and psychological trauma, images flashing back to the moment we were told to leave our home, trying to explain to my younger brother what was happening, moments covering my brother’s ears as we heard our dogs being killed for being “possessed,” and the heartbreaking times my mother, my absolutely angelic mother, would tell us to never give-up on our father in between her sobs, trying to keep it together—and the days she would leave, promising to come back for us.

“That’s not him, he’s a good man, I swear.”

It was difficult. I felt alone. There were moments that I didn’t think I’d make it through a day without thinking of a way to end it all—not knowing that I had inherited the illness from my father. I told no one what I was experiencing at home. Hearing how everyone would use “crazy” as a way to degrade and tease other people, I could not bring myself to even remotely entertain the idea that maybe I had the same illness. Growing up being physically disciplined, I had gotten a temper, a temper that was magnified by my condition. It was destructive. Many relationships were ruined because I didn’t understand myself, always justifying my anger. I was never equipped to handle emotions. I was never taught how to deal with things properly. I never had anyone to talk to, and I thought I would be weak for admitting that I was going through something I didn’t understand, my pride getting the better of me.

“You’re just sad, don’t be exaggerated. Kaya mo yan!”

I took up BS Psychology in Ateneo in the hopes to better understand what my father was going through. I offered to stop going to school, if it meant he would agree to let me accompany him to see the psychiatrist. But it never worked. He never listened. It further ostracized him from his children.

“I don’t need it. I’m not the crazy one.”

Fast-forward a few years, I am a freshman in law school. I don’t talk to many people, it’s difficult for me to sustain barkadas or big groups of friends. I usually just have a handful of people I talk to. On a particular day, I found out that my mother left Bacolod for good. I lost my relationship. I had no one left to talk to. I didn’t know how to feel. But I had to push it aside and focus on being a law student, a fraternity member, an officer of the student council. Until I couldn’t take it anymore.

“I just want all of it to end.”

What made me acknowledge that I needed help was having thoughts of self-infliction of pain. Something I formerly thought was ridiculous and dramatic. But trust me, sometimes we do things as a way to escape. I sought professional help. I wanted to drop out of law school. I wanted to be with my mother. I approached the school administration and I was told that they didn’t offer LOAs to freshmen—that maybe I should consider just stopping altogether. My mother adamantly opposed this so I dropped Constitutional Law instead so that I had more time for myself.

Despite having dropped the subject and speaking to a psychiatrist, I was still in denial. I was afraid of fully admitting to myself that I had the illness. It was weak, I’m supposed to be stronger than that—it’s just an emotion. I started binge drinking, going out non-stop because going home and being on my bed would just be torture at that point.

“Are you okay?”

The only reason why I am here right now, being able to tell you about all of this is because of my mother, my relatives, my siblings, my brods, and my friends. I tried opening up. And I was scared. But they received it better than I could have ever imagined it. I started to recover with the help of the people I failed to realize that they were right there, ready to help. It was okay to open up.

You see, when we engage in self-destructive and escapist behavior such as drinking to forget the pain we are experiencing, we discount the change that the pain demands. I learned that a mental illness is not an excuse to behave badly. It is like any other personality flaw, it is a challenge that you were given, one that you have to face, to be better than what you are predisposed to be. It is a challenge to open up to your friends, to seek help, to make other people aware. For me it was a blessing, I learned a lesson that there are people around me willing to listen if only I spoke up.

I was scared of being called weak for admitting that I had a disorder. I was wrong. There is a certain strength in knowing your own weakness—not all battles you can win alone.

Times are changing, people are recognizing mental health issues. It is not a disability; you are not any less capable to do what you want to do because you were born with something that makes you different. That kid in Bacolod City, just wanting to escape, would not have imagined ever being able to be more than what he was categorized to be: mentally disabled. Despite what I thought my limitations were, I speak to you all now as the President of the Student Council, a co-founder of an NGO for indigenous peoples, a member of the Ateneo Law community, and a proud individual—the least significant characteristic of whom Bipolar I is included.

Be aware, be open. You will never know who amongst the people around you are going through something they are not willing to open up about. A simple “are you okay” at the right time helped me more than I could have ever imagined. It is about time that we have a support system for the people going through the silent battles at home or in their heads. It is about time that they know that they are not alone, that it is okay, that it does not make them weak. They just have a different battle to face compared to everyone else.

The “kaya mo yan! Pinili mo naman ang law school” mentality should end. Mental illness is not something anyone should discount. The “kakayin ko to” mentality is what got me to the point that I was breaking down, because I kept pushing it down and ignoring it, because, heck, that’s what law school is about right? Being tough and just taking it all in. No! You are not weak for admitting that there is something you are not equipped to handle. You are not any less of a future lawyer because there are times that you just need a break, that you need some help. You are different, yes, but you are not less. It makes you special, it gives you the chance to be better than the moments that try your mental fortitude.

Speak up. Let people know. Break the stigma. We are in this together.

Robert L. Escalante II
ALS Student Council

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