Something’s been gnawing at me lately.
I’ve come out about having bipolar disorder but I haven’t really explained to people what it is and how deeply it affects me. I share posts about bipolar disorder on social media but I don’t talk about my own experiences.
I try to be a “poster-girl” for mental illness – aka “I used to suffer from this but now I’m doing much better and if you follow this recipe you’ll recover too!” I am an overachiever by nature and I want to show the world how successful I am at beating this disorder.
But I haven’t really beaten it. The struggle is very much alive.
There’s a lot that’s wrong with this. Sometimes I’m not as well as I look and I fail to show the ill side of me. I fail to educate people around me. I don’t open up or reach out when I need help. Putting on a brave face and hiding my illness was exactly what made it so much worse to begin with. Sadly I’ve realised I’m perpetuating mental illness stigma which is not helping fellow sufferers or myself at all.
A friend of mine has recently become an advocate for her own chronic illness and she is brutally honest in her campaigns to bring attention to it and increase awareness. I want to be able to do the same. I want to invite people into the reality of living with mental illness – the failures, the true journey, showing that I don’t always do well.
Let’s explore some of the reasons I haven’t been more explicit about bipolar disorder to my friends and family: I don’t want people to be scared of me or be treated differently. I don’t want to be ridiculed. I don’t want to be “just another person with a sob story”. I don’t want bipolar disorder to become all that I am known by. Probably the biggest fear I have, though, is that it will affect my career. Sadly, that’s the world we live in.
In reality, everyone I’ve spoken to in person about my illness has been genuinely curious about it and wanted to help. No-one has been afraid or has treated me differently because of it. The people that matter know me well enough to understand this is just another part of me. I’m still their friend. I have to trust that being more explicit is not going to push them away. Quite the contrary – it could help them understand so they can feel more comfortable with bipolar disorder and what it means.
I also believe that so long as I continue to show the rest of me too – my other interests, me as a person etc. – then I will keep the picture balanced and won’t have to worry about bipolar disorder being all that I’m known by.
As for being just another sob story, well my years of silence demonstrate how little I personally want attention for having a mental illness. My achievements show I’m not looking for excuses not to do well. Perhaps a sob story is all that it is for some, but that’s ok. Everyone has their own sob story.
And effects on my career? Maybe it will affect it, maybe it won’t. I have to trust that my CV will demonstrate my capabilities despite the illness. I am fortunate enough that in academia mental illness is becoming more accepted because we are generally a highly educated and open-minded bunch anyway.
I’m going to try being more transparent about my illness now.