I was diagnosed with Type II bipolar disorder a little over eleven years ago. For a long time after I was diagnosed, I struggled. I was frequently overmedicated and could hardly stay awake at times. The antidepressants fueled hypomanic tendencies that my doctor never recognized. I couldn’t seem to get through a day without taking very long naps. I dropped out of more than one graduate program. And I couldn’t hold down a full-time job.
I did eventually get better after switching doctors and giving up most of the psychotropic medications. It was a hard fight, but I returned to my degree program, finished my thesis, and got my master’s degree. In 2010, I got a full-time job in my field. And since then, I have known success and stability in my relationships and in my chosen profession. I have a lot to be proud of and thankful for. But there is one thing I wish were different: I wish I believed that if the truth of my diagnosis were widely-known at work, I wouldn’t be subject to rude and unprofessional behavior or lose my job.
Let me be clear: I have no desire to tell my coworkers that I have a mental health diagnosis. As far as I’m concerned, that’s none of their business. But when I was applying for my current position, my mentor warned me that I needed to make sure that I said nothing in the interview that even hinted at the fact that I had been sick for so long or that I had a mental health diagnosis. This would be a fairly standard warning for anyone in my situation who was re-entering the workforce, in spite of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I took his advice seriously. And since I have been at my current position, I have heard some coworkers make disparaging comments about people with bipolar disorder and use the term “bipolar” as an insult. It does not happen all the time. But it happens often enough to be troubling, and it suggests to me that if my diagnosis were known, I would have to be very careful about what I said and did.
The comments themselves are trivial. The first few times I heard them, I laughed out loud because they were so ridiculous. In my coworkers’ minds, the term “bipolar” seems to cover some interesting territory. Parsing the various comments, it seems that when my coworkers call someone “bipolar”, what they really mean is that they make decisions that my coworkers don’t like, they say one thing and do another, or they change their minds a lot and therefore inconvenience my coworkers. The last time I heard one of these comments, I spoke up and said, “You know, I’m not really sure that’s what being bipolar means.” The response: “Of course it is. That’s what bipolar people do. They can’t make up their minds.” There was no arguing with the woman who made the comment, apparently. She was maligning my character, and there wasn’t a thing I could say to make her stop. I know it would have drawn her up short if I had disclosed at that point, but I have no doubt that disclosing would not have been helpful. She might have stopped making comments in front of me, but I’m sure that knowing about my diagnosis would have fundamentally changed the way she thought about me. It would also have become office gossip. Neither of those outcomes appeals to me.
I recently watched a TED talk on YouTube that seems relevant. The speaker was an African writer named Chimamanda Adichie and the talk was called “The Danger of a Single Story”. In the talk, Adichie discusses what happens when we only tell a single story about a person or a place. She argues that when we tell only a single story about someone or somewhere, we distort the truth about that person or place. I am afraid that if I disclosed at work, my illness would quickly become the single important story that anyone told about me. My illness would be the lens through which all of my words and actions were perceived. I couldn’t be all of the other things I want to be in the workplace because I would, before all other things, be mentally ill. I want to be known as a hard worker, a strong writer, and a good team player. As someone who likes a good joke and laughs a lot. As someone who pitches in when others need help, as fair-minded and capable. But I don’t think I can be known for those things and be “out of the closet” as well.
So every day, I lie a little about who I am to my coworkers. The lie goes like this: “I am just like you, and there is absolutely nothing different about me. There is nothing more to my story than what I have told you.” This isn’t a terrible lie, and I can live with telling it if it means I can be successful at work. To some degree, it’s similar to the kinds of lies that LGBT individuals had to tell (and are still telling) to get along with their coworkers, though I know that for the LGBT community, concealing the truth about sexual orientation was also, at certain times and places, a necessary measure to protect themselves against the threat of violence, which I don’t believe is a consideration in my case. But in the field I work in, LGBT individuals generally feel free to be out of the closet at work. I am glad that we have come that far as a society. I just wish we could go a little further.
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What I get out of your story is that the people you work, in your opinion, are all jerks, and that’s why you claim you are lying when you write “I am just like you, and there is absolutely nothing different about me.” You are elitist and quite, frankly, navel gazing. Sounds to me like you need to develop some humility and compassion for your fellow human beings. Stop thinking of yourself as a stupid bipolar label, and then you may not find the jokes so stinging! Many worthy people with your “label” never get as far as you have and, yet you’re complaining?
Wow. That’s quite a negative reply. I’m sorry you didn’t like the piece, but I suppose you can’t win them all. No, I actually quite like my coworkers, believe it or not. Even the ones who make snide comments about people with bipolar disorder. I wish they were better-informed, of course. But they are not bad people. I’m sorry if I gave the impression that they were.
Yes, I disagree with what my coworkers say about the mentally ill. Yes, their comments do make it a little harder sometimes for me to be comfortable in their presence. But I don’t think that makes me an elitist, not do I think that it means I lack compassion or humility. What I would like is for everyone to show a little more compassion for the mentally ill. That may not be as important for me on a day to day basis, since I have made a good recovery. But I do think it’s important for those who are still struggling. Everyone should be treated with respect, including the mentally ill. And I think that I am within my rights to call out others who fail to do this, regardless of whether or not you think that makes me an “elitist” who has no compassion or humility.
I’ll admit I got a little cranky. The reason is, I’m losing patience with people who believe their diagnosis and then want others to buy into it, too, and accommodate them (weaken them). How can you be “mentally ill” if you have a job, a graduate degree, and worthwhile social relationships? You are no longer mentally ill, in my opinion, or at least no more mentally ill than what passes for sanity in most people. But, if you (and when I mean “you” I should generalize this to anyone)continually feel “special” and hurt by others, you are isolating yourself, and isolation breeds mental illness.
I just read this post, and what immediately struck me was exactly what I now see Rossa already has articulated very much to the point.
What exactly is it that makes you so special that you think you tell a lie when you say you’re just like everybody else? Let’s see. You have a life story, just like everybody else. That life story means you’ve had certain experiences in life, just like everybody else. And these experiences mean that you reacted to them in a certain way. Just like everybody else. So far, no difference.
The only “difference” between you and everybody else is that you got your reactions to your life psychiatrically labelled. Unfortunately, when you think the label makes you special, different from everybody else, that’s a fallacy. The labelling of our reactions to life as illnesses is based on culturally influenced, subjective viewpoints only. There is no objectively measurable difference between you and your coworkers, your fellow human beings. You have your own, individual life story that is different from everybody else’s. But so does each and every one of us. So, no specialness there.
This means that you are indeed free to choose whether you want to identify as profoundly different from everybody else, or not, and you may want to ask yourself what you’re actually trying to gain by identifying as different, respectively what you fear to lose, in case you couldn’t identify as “bipolar” anymore.
You say, you want to be known as a hard worker, a strong writer, etc. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you. You are absolutely free to choose, and you choose to identify as “bipolar”. You want to give the impression that your humanity is a specialness that can buy you others’ attention and sympathy. You use your label as a street currency in this post. And if it wasn’t that you fear to lose your job, you’d also use it as a street currency everywhere else. Let me assure you, it won’t pay off in the long run. You will never heal as long as you cling to this your devoid of any substance “specialness”.
And one last thing: people tend to applaud those who can’t or won’t let go of their past, their wounds, their labels, their ego-identifications, and the supposed specialness that comes along with all of these as courageous. There’s nothing extraordinarily courageous about it. Real courage is to let go of one’s supposed specialness, and to face the truth(!) that we’re all just like everybody else.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DD7TiDvvdM , from about 2:10 on.
I welcome your story, and I fully understand why you would really like to drop your anonymity. It’s like being forced to live a lie. When I returned to full-time employment in Scotland, I was annoyed during my appraisal when my manager persuaded to me to tick the box saying I didn’t have a disability. Bipolar does fall into this caregory, but it was put to me in the following terms: “Well, have you recovered, or are you still delusional?” I felt I had to opt for the former. Nowadays, having retired I’m ambivalent about labels. I’m happy to divulge to anyone who might want to know that I had a diagnosis of bipolar, but I don’t intend to go around with a badge on advertising the fact. Well done for writing this piece.
Thanks for the reply!
Claiming disability status for employment purposes is always tricky, and I would probably never do it. Even though there are supposed to be legal protections in place in the U.S., the reality is that these are often not honored by employers, and it is still very hard to win an employment discrimination suit in this country.
I so agree with Anonymous and feel for her. The problem is that people believe thanks to psychiatrists that once diagnosed you are diagosed for life, that there is no recovery from “mental illness” and that’s where all the prejudice comes from. You might be living a life like everyone else and loose your temper once in a blue moon like everyone else, as soon as people hear that you were diagnosed 20 years ago, they will look at you with different eyes and interpret what you are doing differently. I suspect that they will be afraid of youall of a sudden.
Kudos to you, anonymous, for doing well!
I am very careful not to disclose like anonymous is, and hear negative comments about people with bipolar, also. I got off meds a couple years ago and gradually improved, but not enough to go back to work. It’s nice to be out of akasthisia hell, though (unrecognized by the docs for years, of course)! Due to being unemployed, I have to deal with the dreaded “what do you do for a living?” questions. I wonder how anonymous covered up the long gap in their work record. If I continue to improve, I don’t know how I would explain the years long gap.
I think the pressure to have to cover up the diagnosis is quite damaging, and aggravates depression and isolation in a lot of people.
I was in school much of the time I was unemployed, so the gap is actually not that significant on paper. I did expect questions about the gaps that are visible, but no one asked about that during the interview for some reason. Now that I have a foothold where I intend to work in the future, I doubt it will come up again.
I hope you continue to make a good recovery. There are career counselors who can help you figure out how to phrase things and what needs to be said and not said in an interview when you get to the point where you decide to re-enter the full-time workforce as well. Thanks for responding.
I am in a similar situation at work. I, too, am worried about being labelled and seen as just one thing. However, the longer I am at a job, and the more I think I am seen a whole person, the more I feel I can disclose a little bit. Not the whole story, maybe, as mine is pretty extensive, but some of it. But I also work in healthcare, so I think people are just a little bit more informed than the general pubic (but you would be surprised!).
I recently ‘came clean’ about the diagnosis I was given, of schizophrenia. It was nerveracking at the time, but has made my life easier – I am not frightened of anyone finding out any more (I wasn’t working, but had quite a high profile in my local community as a mother of four young children).
It has also helped my confidence – now I know who my friends are and I don’t try to ingratiate myself with others or feel that I have anything to prove. I don’t subscribe to the point of view that I am schizophrenic any more either – I know I have recovered, whether or not the mental health professionals wish to acknowledge that fact.
So, I would recommend owning up to a diagnosis – apart from anything else it is the best way to combat stigma, and will help future generations to deal with mental health issues more rationally – i.e. to become more open and less fearful.
However, it took me many years to open up, so I don’t blame anybody for keeping their mental health history secret – I am just saying that when and if you do decide to tell, the effects may well not be as negative as you think, and may even turn out to be positive.
All the best, Louise
I admire your courage to publish your story online and even though I am not bipolar I know what it’s like to be ostracized for being different from others in any sense. I am also sorry that you have to read quite insensitive remarks from some people. When I read this kind of comments, I appreciate your courage even more and I fully understand why you need to keep anonymity. I feel for what you have to go through and I hope that one day we all will live in the world that is safe for people like you to talk openly about their experiences without having to hide their identity.
The anonymous author says “I disagree with what my coworkers say about the mentally ill.”
I disagree with you saying there is a homogenous group that ought to be known as “the mentally ill”.
I feel for you, in that you’ve had stigma heaped upon you and your good name soiled. You had deep emotional distress and very acute problems in your life and thoughts for a time. That does not make you part of a group called “the mentally ill”, as though this is some immutable characteristic.
I would also mention too, the ridiculous guesswork nature of psychiatric labeling, and if you paid five more psychiatrists to perform a blind diagnosis on you (providing them with no written records of your past), you could get PLENTY of different labels apart from your ‘bipolar’ label.