Eighteen Months Later: Life After Disclosing Bipolar Disorder
It’s been about eighteen months now since I first went public with my bipolar disorder, in October of 2011. It was an interesting process. I wrote the article on the website, linked to it of Facebook, and just kind of waited. Given that it was the internet, within a day, it pretty much became common knowledge.
While there were a couple of people who knew beforehand, including my wife, I’d really kept it hidden from most people. Since then, my life has changed a lot, so much that I really wanted to look back on the decision and its consequences on my website. Was disclosing a good idea? In the end, I think it was. However, there were also some surprises, both good and bad, that are worth noting for others who might be considering it.
I feel a little more like I can be myself. At the very least, I’m no longer hiding.
There were a number of things that were quite positive about my experience of disclosing my bipolar disorder.First, my family was especially supportive. You can actually see this pretty concretely, if you see the comments on the bottom of the disclosure post. This is at least in part because I am not the only bipolar person in my family. I have a very close extended family on my mother’s side. I think people had been aware that something was up with me, and a couple family members said something along the lines of “That makes sense,” but not in a way that was patronizing. I feel that I’ve actually become closer with them since I decided to go public.
Second, I feel more comfortable in my own skin. Basically, I don’t feel like I’m hiding myself from other people any more. Despite the fact that I “present well,” that is, I’m very good at hiding my moods, I was in a constant state of worry before that people would figure out that something was up. Now, I don’t feel that way anymore, at least not normally (though a couple of other fears have replaced it, which I will discuss below). I feel a little more like I can be myself. At the very least, I’m no longer hiding.
Third, I actually feel like I’m making a difference. When I wrote in my original post, I spoke about how being public was important, because, if no one is willing to stand up to (or in some cases absorb) stigma, then it will be very hard to fight. I actually feel good about being publicly bipolar. It’s not something that I would have expected. I kind of thought the whole civic-duty thing would be an afterthought. However, I genuinely believe that I am fighting stigma, just by being public about this, and it feels good.
I find myself in the position of feeling a lot of the time that I need to prove that I’m sane, or at least, non-episodic.
Nonetheless, there have been some negative aspects to being public with a bipolar diagnosis. Some of them, I sort of expected. Some of them I didn’t. I’ll put some of these together for anyone else who is thinking of going public with a diagnosis. I think it’s important to hear both sides of the experience.First, I find myself in the position of feeling a lot of the time that I need to prove that I’m sane, or at least, non-episodic. I have to be extra careful about my temper or speaking quickly or being intense, because now what would be normal in a given circumstance can give people an excuse to write me off. Of course, a lot of those who would write me off for being bipolar would write me off in any event, but it’s still hard not to take personally.
Second, I’ve had to face some real discrimination. I can’t be specific in a public forum, but it’s happened. Even when I’m not sure that it’s had an effect, there’s the nagging thought that it might have. I’ve also become more conscious of the ways in which discrimination is systemic, rather than overt. The academic world is especially egregious, because it is a meritocracy, that is, a system in which people believe that they deserve to be rewarded for being functional. It is a mindset that is inherently, irredeemably discriminatory against the disabled, and I’ve been working in a system built on that mindset.
Third, some people seem uncomfortable with the disclosure, I think because health is considered personal, so mentioning my diagnosis is seen as somehow too forward. Fortunately, because I run this website and I am involved in other peer mental health activities, I rarely have to just flat out say, “I’m bipolar,” but can simply speak about my website. Still, I’ve been unpleasantly surprised by people’s reactions not only to the bipolar disorder but also to the disclosure itself, something I didn’t expect. I’m pretty sure this is some sort of weird, second-order stigma, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
I’ve sacrificed one of our most powerful weapons against discrimination, stealth, on principle.
There’s also a few other results that aren’t exactly bad or good, but are more interesting than anything else.First, I realized that there’s no such thing as “disclosure, once and for all.” Every new person I meet doesn’t yet know I’m bipolar (well, unless they met me through the website). So, I have to decide whether or not to tell that person. Usually, I just don’t, because it’s often not relevant, but I know the person will probably figure it out sooner or later, given my activities. So, I have to decide whether to disclose it pre-emptively or not.
Second, it gives me an excuse for my failings. This is both bad and good. On the one hand, I’ve had to be careful not to use my bipolar disorder as an excuse when it isn’t my bipolar disorder that is the actual issue (though it is tied to my social anxiety, and it is often indirectly the issue). So, there’s a temptation to cry “wolf” about it. On the other hand, I’ve let myself actually get cut some slack when I really need it. Last summer, I missed giving a lecture. At other times, I’ve asked for extensions. These are little things, but things I wouldn’t have asked for when I was afraid of getting caught.
Finally, I’ve become a lot more…prophetic. I actually didn’t see this coming, but it makes sense. I’m publicly bipolar in a world that, despite its occasionally good intentions, carries with it centuries of discrimination. On top of that, I’ve sacrificed one of our most powerful weapons against discrimination, stealth, on principle. By sacrificing my interests, I now have less to lose, and I find myself more often speaking truth to power.
Overall, I’m glad that I disclosed. There are definitely downsides, but they’re the kind of downsides that make me a better person, so I guess I’m okay with that. Some things have genuinely been worse than I’d thought they would be, but others have been better, so it evens out, mostly.
However, it really has changed me. I’ll often forget that I’ve only been public about my bipolar disorder for less than five percent of my life. It feels like it’s always been this way. I did something that was worthwhile, and it has really changed things. I suppose that’s a very different way to approach the world than hiding and hoping it’ll treat me better. It’s kind of hard not to be a rebel after that.
I’m bi polar feel the same thanks for sharing. Never be ashamed. The website relates to my son who died December after asking his life due to depression
Thank you for sharing this, Alan. I am sorry for your loss.
Hi Daniel, I followed your posts on Bipolar Today and identify where you’re coming from… I’m usually up front and honest with people soon after meeting them or even sometimes before (on the internet) but I am so sick of the stigma scaring them off before getting to know me… there has been too many instances where either the person doesn’t know what Bipolar Disorder is or they once knew someone with Bipolar who ‘screwed them over’. I have never been violent in my life and have not been in hospital for 7 years now. I appreciate the insight I have acquired into my triggers and work really hard at staying as well as I can under the circumstances 😉 I had a close call last week when I took some Chinese herbs a friend gave me for my back pain… they fired up the neurotransmitters in my brain giving instant energy…Big mistake for me!! Back to the disclosure though, I recently met a woman for coffee and when I told her I had Bipolar disorder she said ‘All people with Bipolar are Bisexual!!’…wtf?? this ignorance and stupidity is what we have to deal with on a day to day basis. I feel deceitful when I don’t tell people so it’s tough and usually comes up in conversation anyway. Stay strong and true to your values xox
Thank you, Kathryn. I have a lot of people flat-out say that they don’t know what bipolar is, which is a nice chance to provide some information. However, I’ve had some odd responses before (never the “bisexual” one, though; that one’s new). It’s ultimately one of the reasons I disclose. If people don’t know they know us, it’s harder for them to understand us. However, I appreciate that this isn’t for everyone. Everyone has his or her own situation and has to make a judgement call.
Thank you so much for sharing. I work with mentally-ill (don’t like that term) but have had a hard time accepting that I am Bi-Polar. It’s good to see people with all types of achievements and education come out. I think hearing stories from such give others inspiration that they can lead pretty normal lives if they adhere to some rules and take care of themselves. Thanks again 🙂
You’re welcome, Amy.
I didn’t publish your comment, but your email address didn’t work, so I’m responding here. In case of abuse:
In the US: call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).
UK: call Women’s Aid at 0808 2000 247.
Canada: call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-363-9010.
Australia: call 1800RESPECT at 1800 737 732.
Worldwide: visit International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies for a global list of helplines and crisis centers.
Hi Daniel, I really appreciate your posts on Bipolar disorder. I am a Psychiatric nurse who struggles with Depression (and some mood swings). I can totally relate to your comment about people in the workplace feeling that they deserve to be rewarded for being functional. Sadly, the stigma is just as strong among healthcare professionals so I am constantly finding myself mentally fighting it (and often, as you say, absorbing it). For this reason, I rarely come out to my co-workers. I often think of myself as being on the fence between being the patient and the nurse. I have come out with my depression to my friends and family though, and I agree with you about the pros and cons of making your mental illness known. It’s so nice to know that people “know” without having to discuss it (because it’s usually the last thing I want to discuss). I really like your comment that you have less to lose because you have sacrificed your interests. I think that the people who have suffered (and lost) the most are those who have the most to give and, for this reason I really feel that it is the place of those of us who are bereaved,broken and strengthened by mental illness to work together to reduce stigma. Thank you!
You’re welcome, Karen, and thank you for the great comment! It’s sad to hear that the health field, of all places, carries with it such stigma about mental illness, since they, of all people, should know better. I just found after a while that hiding it was exhausting. Overall, though, I do find that I have a lot more to give, or at least unique gifts.
You will find the negative responses come from the people who are (sometimes surprisingly) most insecure about their own sanity. My consultant,a very wise woman, confirmed this. As the Chinese say, “If you fight evil directly,it will find weapons with which to attack you.The best strategy is to make energetic progress in the good.”
Take up yoga, go for long walks in the country,listen to good music and read good books. Good luck.
Thank you for the suggestions, Steve. I have found that there are some people who react negatively, just because they can.
I been bi-polar for years. Relationships prove disastrous,so no new relationship. Its take your meds. I don’t tell anyone. I volunteer at the Metro Park on Saturdays. I go to Bi-polar and Depression meetings and Wellness Club and CFACT. I never know what to expect each day.
Since I have been open about my condition, which was right from the start, I have noticed that when friends and colleagues ask how I am…there is this little penetrating stare suggesting that the question is more like…are you symptomatic? are you too high? too low? are you taking your meds? Or maybe that’s just my own paranoia setting in. Great article Daniel…I enjoyed it very much.
I felt the same way as you as far as disclosing to fight stigma. For that reason, I was pretty much open about it from the beginning of my diagnosis. A lot of my experience has been positive, but some negative as well. The positive being I didn’t have to hide it and could educate people. The negative ended up outweighing the positive for me though and I quit disclosing it to new friends. I didn’t care for the underlying feeling I got with some people that they were judging me. It has also been freeing in a way not having new friends know. It helps having people in my life who see me as “normal”. I think it helps because it reminds me I am “normal” if that makes sense. Thanks for sharing your experiences.