It Happened to Me: I'm Coming Out As Having Bipolar Disorder
Unbeknownst to him, Daniel Day-Lewis changed my life.
This year on Oscar night, as we watched the "Lincoln" actor take the stage to accept his golden statuette for Best Actor, my husband remarked that it must be really difficult for Lewis’ wife to live with such a genius.
“What the hell does that mean?” I snapped.
“Well,” my husband said, “I heard that when he’s filming a movie he stays in character all the time. And it must be really difficult to be constantly in the presence of someone who’s at that level.”
At this, my hands began to shake. My breath quickened. My chest filled with angry wasps and my eyes narrowed around brimming tears.
“What the FUCK do you mean?!” I spat at him. “YOU live with an artistic genius, you fuck!! How DARE you imply that I’m not at the same creative caliber as Daniel Day fucking LEWIS? Just because I’m not FAMOUS or I don’t make a lot of MONEY?! FUCK YOU.”
Leaving my bewildered partner behind, I ran into our bedroom, pulled the covers over my head, and devolved into nearly two hours of defeated sobbing.
Sorry boys, but this lunatic is taken.
I am not a toddler. I have, however, been prone to visceral anger and irrational tantrums for much of my post-pubescent life. Sometimes these episodes are accompanied by crushing sadness, like the time I popped five Benadryl at soccer camp in a melodramatic "I don’t want to commit suicide but I want you bitches to think I’m trying to" gesture, or the month I spent in bed watching "Law and Order" reruns and crying into Styrofoam containers of takeout.
Other times, I’m just FUCKING PISSED for no reason, as I was when I halted mid-wash to throw a soapy dish sponge directly into a friend’s face because he dared to accuse me of looking great without makeup on.
Lying in bed that night, hiding from my husband and from my own behavior, it dawned on me that although this insanity was familiar, it wasn’t normal.
I needed help.
I live in San Francisco, where it is exceedingly difficult to find a mental health professional. Oh, there are dozens, maybe even hundreds of them. But most of them have a full patient roster. It took a few days of calling and pleading with unsympathetic receptionists to finally find a doctor who would see me, and quickly. At my first appointment she listened to my tales of roidy freakouts and suggested that we consider Bipolar II as a "working diagnosis."
I’d heard the term "bipolar" before, but didn’t know that there was more than one type. Mostly I associated it with a former roommate who would alternate between sleeping for days and enthusiastically playing "Joy Prelude" on her guitar until the sun rose and I was silently but methodically plotting her murder. (Incidentally, I planned to strangle her with an E string until she gurgled and expired.)
My new psychiatrist explained that the roommate likely suffered from Bipolar I: a combination of depression and mania. Bipolar II is characterized by hypomania, which is more of a subdued but ever-changing cocktail of energy spurts, spontaneous irritation, and inflated confidence. It made sense: I constantly began and abandoned new projects; I was easily pissed off; I was fully convinced that I embodied the same artistic genius as a three-time Academy Award winner.
Since then I’ve been discreetly undergoing treatment for Bipolar II. Therapy, medication, the whole nine. I could probably keep it a secret forever, but lately I’ve been wondering if I should tell people. And how to tell them.
I wonder if I even need to. I mean, surely it’s been obvious for years that something is seriously wrong with me. A countless string of boyfriends have dumped me because they couldn’t figure out how to make me happy. I have abruptly abandoned friends for enraging me with what I now see as innocuous slip-ups, like forgetting my birthday.
Hell, I was in the throes of a depressive episode when I accompanied a friend to see "Amour" in January, a movie which -– spoiler alert -– will make you want to kill yourself even if you aren’t already spending all day every day consciously trying not to kill yourself. He took one look at me weeping openly during the closing credits and declared half-jokingly that he’d traumatized me. But the subtext was clear -– that my unreasonable state of distress had actually traumatized him.
There’s a stigma to mental illness, and though I’m grateful and relieved to have this diagnosis, I’m also self-conscious of it. So far I’ve only told a small and select group of people that includes my husband but not my parents. (Hi Mom and Dad! FYI, I’m bipolar. Kbai.)
I’m afraid that if I “come out,” per se, as being mentally imbalanced, then people will start treating me like I have a hook for a hand and am stalking Jennifer Love Hewitt. I don’t want to be feared or pitied. I don’t want for the people I love to somehow feel guilty or responsible for my emotional state.
But I also want them to understand that when I’m mad or sad or feeling bad, thinking about the things that I never had, it’s because my brain chemistry is out of whack and it’s not my fault. It’s nobody’s fault. Just as I am not consciously choosing to behave like an asshole, my assholery is not the lingering result of a dysfunctional upbringing or a traumatic event. Not even watching "Amour."
The first person I told was my husband, who was just as relieved as I was that there was a name and a treatment for my distress. Empowered by his positive reaction, I told a few of my close friends, all of whom said something along the lines of “Cool. Let me know if I can help.”
Is that enough? Do I owe a confession to acquaintances or colleagues? My treatment makes it obvious, I think, that my mental health is improving. Several people who are unaware of my diagnosis have commented on my improved mood and have pretended not to notice when I accidentally drool or when my mouth is so dry that I can’t control the pitch of my voice –- side effects of my medication that are especially embarrassing if you’re a singer (which I am) or you’re not into sexual role-playing as an adult baby (which I am not).
Ultimately I decided that I should stop regarding my mental health as a dirty little secret and just come clean. And so, here I am, writing this article and airing my bipolar disorder to the world.
I thought long and hard about whether to put my name on this piece, whether there would be personal or professional repercussions for publicly disclosing that I suffer from a mental illness. Well, fuck that. I am not ashamed, nor am I afraid of any accompanying consequences of my transparency. And, because of that, it seems hypocritical to spill my guts about my Bipolar II but then hide behind a byline of "Anonymous."
There’s an ongoing discourse about mental health care in this country that gains particular momentum in the wake of tragic events like the Sandy Hook school shootings. My take? People need affordable access to comprehensive mental health care. Period.
And when they don’t have it they sometimes weep their way through spin class (guilty), or ramble to themselves about nonsense on a public bus, or shoot up drugs, or shoot up schools. I am incredibly, undeniably lucky to have health insurance. I didn’t have it for years, actually, and when I think of all the time I spent curled in a ball feeling like a worthless waste of a human, of all the relationships I destroyed and all of the infuriated outbursts that the love of my life has to regularly endure, it occurs to me that much of that could have been avoided if I’d been able to afford therapy in my mid 20s, when my symptoms began to really intensify.
I remain in therapy and I faithfully take my meds and I continue to uncomfortably but dutifully accept my status as bipolar person, all the while reminding myself that mental illness does not make me a social pariah. I also try not to wave my diagnosis in the air like a rhinestone flag of declaration, like: “I’m bipolar, bitches!!! DEAL WITH IT!!!” That’s not really my style.
The Great Daniel Day-Lewis Incident of 2013 is now far enough behind me that I can laugh about it, as I try to laugh about each of my cries for help that masqueraded as irrational outbursts. That is my style. And though I make light of my condition I take it very seriously, just as I take very seriously the notion that mental illness should not be a source of shame, and that everyone deserves access to whatever treatment they need.
And, for what it’s worth, Mr. Lewis is an unparalleled genius and, it must indeed be hard to live with that.