My bipolar disorder came out recently at work. Cautioned against sharing my diagnosis, I had done everything I could to hide it. Yet I longed to be more open. I had an instinct that my colleagues would be sensitive to my situation. Afraid that I was being naïve, I kept my mouth shut.
I didn’t choose to disclose – the course of my illness did it for me. In retrospect, perhaps I should have chosen that path for myself. My instincts about my colleagues turned out to be right, though my diagnosis was a surprise for them. During the 13 months since I had started working for my employer, I had gone through 10 (well controlled) episodes, without apparently manifesting any marked signs of distress or euphoria. They had lots of questions, yet they let me talk. They asked for clarifications with genuine curiosity and sympathy. Their desire to be supportive and sensitive was manifest.
It was a relief for people at work to know about my illness
What a relief it has been to come out of the shadows. Yet by god it has been tiring – a potent blend of relief and a feeling of exposure and vulnerability, all served up with a twist of post-hypomanic depression. Questions still remain open – there’s no chance that my colleagues will belittle my experience, but will they become anxious and overprotective? I hope not.
Although now some people at work are now in the know, there are many other people in my life who couldn’t tell you a thing about my illness. I’m lacking support, yet I can’t blame my friends and family. Whilst some of them know my diagnosis, I’ve told relatively few what it means to me to live with bipolar disorder on a day to day basis. As I am high-functioning, following the advice of my doctor and detecting episodes promptly, the outward signs are few. And so, as I seem fine, I pretend that I am fine – a strategy that has the advantage of keeping feelings about the illness at bay. If I can pretend to others that there’s nothing different about me, maybe I can pretend to myself too.
It's time to change - I need to share the burden with others
Today I feel like it’s time to change. Grieving after the impact of this latest episode, I need recognition of my experience and support from others. I don’t need someone to help me manage my illness – my psychiatrist and I are doing that just fine, thanks very much. But I do feel the need to share the emotional burden of being ill.
I want people to understand what I have to experience. That I have to monitor my every thought and mood – to constantly ask if my good humour or my enthusiasm is a sign of hypomania. That I have to be forever adjusting my medication, medication that makes me tired, sluggish and liable to gain weight. That I try to do the same things as my classmates and colleagues, yet struggle more at every step with fatigue, memory problems and a tendency to get more stressed by every little thing. That I will never be able to skip exercise, or to go to bed too early or too late, or to have more than one drink.
That I have to wonder if stressful or exciting events might set me off. That I spend days achieving precisely nothing because my mood is not stable enough to consistently apply myself. That I have frightening thoughts that seem to come from outside of me – thoughts I can choose not to listen to but certainly can’t control. That just when think I am finally beginning to get a handle on this illness, it pulls the rug out from under my feet. That I live with the uncertainty generated by a condition that tends to worsen over time. That I am forced to wonder if I have the strength and health to be able to have the things that most people dream of – a fulfilling career and family life. That I may have to make hard choices.
Twelve years ago I was revising for Masters exams. I was stressed, discouraged and depressed. I met a friend (now my partner of five years) to revise together. Without me saying anything, he picked up on my mood. ‘Keep the faith, Sarah,’ he said. And the faith that he – a confirmed atheist if ever there was one – conveyed with the gentle loveliness of his eyes, and the simplicity of his choice of words, gave me courage. I long to draw strength from your gaze, too.