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.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.