Content Warning: While care has been taken to omit unnecessary detail, this article contains written accounts of experiences with suicide risk and acute mental illness.
Earlier this week, I was in a hair salon, which is a regular necessity for me, as I have short hair. I used to have long, thick hair. In early 2019, over half the hair on my head fell out. When I started seeing patches on my head, I went to the salon and had most of it cut off, so that it wouldn't look so strange.
It's taken a few trips to hairdressers to try to minimise the visual impact of such significant hair loss as it recovers and regrows. Not that I particularly care how I look... I'm just so glad to be alive that I wouldn't care if I had lost it all forever. The people of this salon have been generally wonderful as I have endured the strange experience of hair loss due to illness.
My appointment began as any other, with a bit of a shampoo and a chat. I did the usual wander across to the chair and Melissa* began to tame my moptop and have a natter. As a usual hairdresser's conversations go, this wasn't anything out of the ordinary, at first.
Soon, the conversation turned to a friend of her partner's that she doesn't particularly like. She began by referring to an awkward situation she had been in with this unwelcome person in her life, but then extended her comments to more detail about his behaviour.
After a few minutes of describing a quite inconsiderate and misguided person who clearly has a problem with boundaries, she said, "I seriously think he must be bipolar. He's the sort of person who tells you one thing and then totally changes his mind and screws you over the next day. I don't want him around."
At this point in the conversation, I was embarrassed for Melissa. She had not only put her terrible ignorance on display, but implied to a customer with bipolar 2 disorder that people with a bipolar diagnosis are terrible people.
I should assert at this point, of course, that she is disastrously mistaken about the diagnostic criteria for all variants of bipolar disorder, and that bipolar disorder is not an individual's personality (or personality disorder, as the case may be).
Most of all, Melissa was mistaken about how we should be referring to mental illness with someone we know well, let alone a customer in your salon who is now incredibly tense, now unwillingly trapped in an awkward commercial transaction with you and whose hair is in your hand.
I clammed up, and I could have corrected her, but I had to stick to a schedule because of a meeting closely following my appointment. All the same, I was so glad to get out of her chair. I resolved to make it the topic of my weekly take instead.
My intent in writing this article isn't to shame the hairdresser. It's to illustrate how poorly the community understands a diagnosis that we know is too common to know so little about. We don't have the luxury of opting out of a basic psychoeducation if we wish to avoid the situation that Melissa so freely and so obliviously put herself into this week.
Allow me to take you back to the reason I lost my hair to begin with.
In December, I spent nearly three weeks in hospital - two weeks of it in intensive care. The diagnosis was Influenza A, and then came pneumonia. I was writing for no less than three magazines at the time, yet never making enough from it to even pay my costs, let alone childcare bills.
By December 3, I was dangerously exhausted, and bedridden with flu. By December 6, I was hospitalised. By December 8, I could not breathe without help.
After a touch-and-go ambulance transfer to a hospital that had the equipment I needed, I spent four days taking massive effort with every breath. Very soon, it became easier for me not to breathe. I considered letting go, and dying. I felt so relaxed, during the seconds I spent not breathing. I texted my mother, to tell her I couldn't fight anymore. Until only last week, I didn't realise I had done that. She told me when I was visiting her only days ago that I had texted her with this message. I have no recollection of it.
Before long, my boyfriend was on a plane and my family were also en route to say their goodbyes. I missed my boyfriend so much that the news of his return cheered me enough to fight. I mustered up my last ounce of strength to concentrate on breathing myself back to life.
While my health hasn't been quite the same since, life is good.
Don't worry, I haven't lost sight of my point. I now wish to take you directly to two other near-death experiences (outside of my experiences of domestic violence).
There have been two other times that I have been close to death in a hospital. Those times happened much earlier in my life, before I was diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder. I was exhausted from being thrown about like a ragdoll by the illness, and did not have the psychoeducation to understand the cause of my distress and crippling bouts of depression. Together with the unfair everyday barriers and mental load that single mothers have, it's a recipe for disaster. I was at high risk of death, and needed emergency treatment.
The difference is that when I needed a breathing machine, I got a breathing machine. When that breathing machine wasn't enough, they transferred me to Nepean Hospital where there was a better breathing machine. There was no question that I needed and deserved an adequate response to the risk to my body. When I was at risk of losing my life to untreated mental illness earlier in life, I did not immediately receive adequate care, and when the slow recovery to wellness was taking place, I had to spend food money on psychiatrists.
A stranger sat with me for a coffee this week in Windsor, and told me about her struggles with her daughter's mental illness.
"Sometimes I wish she'd had cancer," she said. "If she'd had cancer and not mental illness, maybe Centrelink would give her a Disability Support Pension. Maybe if she went to hospital, people with knowledge on her sickness would be on hand to treat it. Maybe if she had cancer, the community in general might understand why she can't just answer a phone call or have a fulltime job in an environment full of unfamiliar faces and noises and surfaces."
Unlike cancer, patients with mental illness do not receive the lifesaving hospital treatments and swift ambulance transfers to properly-equipped hospitals that they need to survive a high-risk episode.
Unlike pneumonia, people with bipolar disorder don't often have the psychoeducation they need to self-identify symptoms and seek help.
Unlike pneumonia, people with a bipolar disorder diagnosis do not enjoy being surrounded by a generally educated and sympathetic community.
Please learn all about bipolar disorder from reliable literature, and when speaking with any other human being at all - even someone you feel you know - don't assume that they don't live with mental illness just because they present to you as functional.
If you feel you need to reach out to someone to improve your mental health, please seek QUALIFIED help. Book an appointment with your GP today for a Mental Health Care Plan and a referral to a Registered Psychologist in your region. For emergency assistance, please call 000.
*name has been changed
Want to learn more?
Read SANE Australia's guide to Bipolar Disorder here.