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“With depression there’s no cast, no oxygen tank, just a lame story about some bad thoughts," says Therese Borchard, author of "Beyond Blue." I agree with her. I could remain silent. Hidden. It would be easier. At least until I have another episode of depression…or mania.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after the birth of my third child in 1997. For the 10 years that followed I rode the bipolar express -– the highs and lows taking me places I never want to go again. I tried 14 different trials of medications until my fourth doctor and I found the right “cocktail” that keeps me on the up and up. Since that time, I’ve completed my M.A. and a Doctor of Psychology in Organizational Psychology.
So, why did I come out when I probably could have kept it hidden pretty well? I guess the answer is: because I can.
I’ve disclosed my illness many times over the last 20 years. Usually to one person, or a small group in protest over some ill-thought comment about how “crazy” someone is or even an ignorant remark about how there should be a national registry for people with mental illness. I draw shock, sometimes even polite concern. But no one really knows what to say afterward.
I understand. What do you say to someone who’s just disclosed they’re mentally ill? I’m way past expecting genuine caring or interest and now, I come out to prove to people how wrong their preconceived notions are regarding people with bipolar disorder. After all, I am a respected member of the educational community. The mother of three girls in college. Homeowner. Everything about me says "stable."
But it was in 2012, when I was going through the vetting process at a small, Christian university in the Central Valley of California that I came out in a big way. It was an almost yearlong process of applications, statements of faith and educational philosophy along with interviews; lots and lots of interviews.
Then, they asked a question that I couldn’t slice and dice away. They asked me about my faith. Because you see, my faith is fundamental to my recovery and remission with bipolar disorder.
So, I answered them. I answered them in writing on my application. I answered them in person in my initial interviews. It didn’t stop them. They didn’t seem particularly concerned about my disclosure. So, when it came time for me to do a faculty-wide presentation about myself, I included a slide in my PowerPoint with a picture of a train about to go off its tracks. It read “The Bipolar Express.” Until then, I hadn’t noticed their shocked faces, the wide-eyed stares. But it was too late to turn back.
In the weeks that followed, I learned that some said I was “too out there” and didn’t want to hire me. However my credentials and experience in special education and specialization in Emotional Disturbance in children must have made me too good to pass up.
Later, after I was hired, colleagues approached me privately, speaking in whispered tones to tell me of their own experiences with mental Illness. Several had lost a sibling to suicide; a few shared their own private experience with anxiety or a breakdown. I value these private comments. I try and offer a word of understanding and encouragement.
Occasionally, I still hear cracks about crazy people around the lunch table, and I politely respond, “Hey, I resemble that remark!” People are unthinking when it comes to mental illness. It’s like life insurance…. everyone is affected, but no one wants to talk about it.
Many of my family and friends don’t see the depression when it’s happening. We who are affected are usually very good at hiding our melancholia, as we know that no one really wants to hear about it. It makes them feel uncomfortable and helpless. So, we pretend and smile and say, “fine” until we are so ill that we can’t do much of anything at all. Sometimes, until it is too late.
Nearly three years later, I’m still there. Still holding it together and hopefully, changing a few ideas about what it means to live with a mental illness. When one in four Americans are affected or have a mental illness, it’s time to quit being silent. Time to step up. Why do we take dinner to those who have cancer or a broken leg, but those of us with severe depression are told we are lazy or just need to get out and exercise? All forms of discrimination are based in ignorance. People are ignorant of the facts; a fact like a person with a M.I. is more likely to be a victim of a crime than a perpetrator of one (Appleby, et al., 2001). Facts like one in four adults and one in five children have or will get diagnoses in their lifetime compared to 1 in 68 with autism.
It’s time to speak out against stigma and discrimination. And it starts right here. I live with bipolar disorder. And I refuse to be ashamed.