Day 28: To what extent do you tell people that you’re bipolar, and why?
Perhaps it was down to my overly honest nature, perhaps it was down to my overly naive nature, but from the moment I was diagnosed back in 2007 it never once occurred to me that I should hide my diagnosis from people. Almost from the get go I was announcing my diagnosis to the world, I was wearing my bipolar diagnosis as a badge of honor, as a means to explain my erratic and (at times) terrifying behaviour. I was never proud to be bipolar, it was never something that I wanted to be, but the moment I was diagnosed my life made sense. All the times I had been zipping around in a manic state of hedonism and misogyny. All the times I had found myself staring into the abyss of depression. All the times my moods had changed at the blink of an eye; one minute feeling immortal, the next painfully mortal and morbidly so. Everything was explained with those three words that would, unquestionably, change my life; bipolar affective disorder.
I remember writing my initial blog post about bipolar shortly after my initial diagnosis. Back then I knew next to nothing about the illness other than the brief synopsis my psychiatrist had given. It was something that scared me, something that confused me, but never something I felt I had to run from. I wanted people to know I was bipolar. I wanted them to know there was a reason that my behaviour had been, at times, odd and disconcerting. I wanted people to understand that everything could be explained by that one, seemingly, inconsequential word. It wasn’t until much later that I would learn this was the wrong thing to do. That it would find my life eclipsed by stigma and discrimination. That forevermore I would be branded with that word as if it were a bad thing; which it isn’t, in any sense of the word.
The moment I learned this was in late 2008. A few months earlier I had been lost to the midst of a hypomanic phase. A hypomanic phase that had seen me take a job in Alice Springs and rampage around that desert town for a few weeks, before setting my eyes on one woman; Diane. It wasn’t an immediate connection, but my hypomania craved to be with her. I needed to be with her. She was, at that moment, one of the most beautiful creatures I had ever laid eyes on and my hypomanic fueled hyper-sexuality was hell-bent on conquering this ravishing challenge. When we eventually ended up in bed together – within days of actually meeting – we lay there the following morning chattering and nattering away. She told me she had problems with depression; I told her I was bipolar. Just like that. No fanfare, no build up, no long drawn out period of contemplation. I just calmly informed her I was bipolar as if telling her the weather was sunny or that I fancied scrambled eggs for breakfast. It never occurred to me that I should lie about my diagnosis. It never occurred to me that it was something I shouldn’t be telling someone straightaway. Like I said, I wanted people to know I was bipolar; it wasn’t something I was ashamed of.
Until that fateful day in late 2008. Diane and I had been ostensibly living together for three months. And one afternoon, after battling for several hours on the tracks of Mario Kart, we were nonchalantly talking on the sofa over a beverage of cold water. We talked about Alice Springs. We talked about the early days of our relationship. We talked about the moment I had lain in bed and, matter of factly, announced I was bipolar. Diane told me that afternoon she had been surprised by what I’d said; that she felt it was something I should have not said. When I questioned her as to why, she said it was something that I shouldn’t be proud of, that it was something that was, in her opinion, “frightening”. I had never looked at my diagnosis in this way before. It was always something I had thought explained my behaviour. It was always something that I had never thought to be scared of, despite the numerous instances of bad press that bipolar receives. Diane went on to tell me that most people with bipolar are vicious, violent human beings. That most people with bipolar hid their illness for good reason. That most people with bipolar weren’t so quick to readily divulge their condition.
She was quick to tell me she didn’t consider me one of the vicious, violent human beings she had mentioned. Few people who actually get to know me think of me in this way, because, quite frankly, you have a higher likelihood of being attacked by your teddy bear than me. But she was scared of who else I would tell, in case other people leapt to conclusions about who I was, in case other people branded me with the word bipolar without getting to know the me that she had gotten to know. When I asked her if I shouldn’t have told her, she said “yes, sometimes I wish you hadn’t told me.”
And those words have stayed with me. That whole conversation has stayed with me. As it made me question everything I had previously believed. That I should hide who I am – lie to people – in order to save wrongful conclusions or judgmental opinion. Even though I wasn’t ashamed to be bipolar, even though I considered it something that people should be able to talk about freely, I began withholding this information from all and sundry; all because I didn’t want them branding me with a word, and a set of behavioral issues, that didn’t necessarily apply to me. I wanted people to see me, not the person they assumed I would be if they discovered I was bipolar.
So for years I kept it a closely guarded secret. I rarely wrote about bipolar on my blog. I never talked about it in polite company. All through the early months of my homelessness, I would even keep it hidden from support workers whose job it was to help and assist me. Surely they would have been able to do a far better job had they known I was bipolar; but I didn’t tell them because i didn’t want them drawing the wrong conclusions. I didn’t want anyone drawing the wrong conclusions. That conversation with Diane had shamed me into hating an aspect of myself that I shouldn’t be ashamed of, and one day, one nonchalant, uneventful day, I realised that.
Sitting there, in my park, I was thinking about my friend Samantha and something she used to tell me. She used to tell me that my kink was “just one small stitch in the multicoloured tapestry that was me”; it wasn’t something to be afraid of, on the contrary, it was something to celebrate. And sitting there, in my park, it suddenly dawned on me what I’d always known, that my bipolar was exactly the same. To hell with people who judged me harshly because they felt one word described my entire personality. To hell with people who wanted to brand me with the word for the rest of time. They didn’t matter, their opinion didn’t matter. All that mattered was me, and what I thought; and I didn’t care that I was bipolar, I never had. It wasn’t something I was proud of, but it was also something I wasn’t ashamed of.
So from that moment on I have told people I suffer from bipolar. I haven’t brought it up in conversation, I haven’t blurted it out to everyone who would listen, but I haven’t hidden it if it has come up. If someone asks, I tell them. If it is raised in conversation, then I openly talk about it. And to hell with what people think. Because, quite frankly, if they can’t handle it, if they decide to judge me without reason, then that’s their problem not mine.
People shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of their illnesses, physical or mental. It is not something we chose to suffer from and it is not something that describes who we are. They are just aspects of our selves, aspects that should be talked about, that should be shared, if only to lessen the stigma and discrimination attached to them. People should be free to discuss their mental illness without fear of what other people think, and the only way we will reach a point in society when it isn’t stigmatized, when it isn’t discriminated against, is when people can say “I suffer from bipolar” or “I suffer from schizophrenia” without fear of retaliation. And the only way we will achieve this is by talking about it, openly, honestly and as loudly as humanly possible.