February 1998. Shell-shocked after a nervous breakdown. I receive my mental illness diagnosis. I have bipolar disorder.
On the wobbly new-born legs of a new identity. I had crossed that big fat safe line between “us” - the sane, and “them” - the mad. I was one of "them". I lost my glamorous, well paid job in the West End of London managing A list celebrities. I was Mentally Ill. For life. I was only 25.
My world shattered around me
A month or so later, I tried to throw myself back into my old life. I was offered a job at another major talent agency in the West End. I thought I would have a reason to live again.
The night before I was due to start, my new boss rang me up. He started shouting and swearing at me. He had found out about my breakdown and told me I was not fit to work in his firm. I stood there, shaking, holding the phone like my final lifeline. I apologised. I told him it I was going to be fine. I tried to sound calm and professional whilst in reality I died slowly. He hung up on me. The West End world of showbiz is tiny. Word was out. I was finished. My world shattered around me.
A friend responded with extreme anger
A month later, I tried to rebuild a social life. I had been hermetically sealed away in depression for months and I thought if I tried to reach out to old friends I would be OK. So, I decided to have a birthday party.
A friend, who had also been a client, responded with extreme anger. She found out that in hospital I had phoned another client to explain my leaving. She said she couldn't believe that I was just casually trying to invite her to my birthday after hearing nothing from me since my disappearance. I stopped trying to invite anyone to a birthday party. There was no party at all.
I decided I would no longer be afraid
Over the years I have heard a mother say she would not want me driving her kids in my car because of my illness, friends have written me off as looking for attention or faking drama when I have had episodes, people have simply severed contact after seeing me seriously unwell not knowing what to say, a boyfriend ended our relationship because he was too embarrassed by me, people even warned a new boyfriend away from me.
In 2013 I had another major depressive episode which lasted months. For nearly a year I withdrew. But during this hibernation a mysterious, almost esoteric “caterpillar thing” happened. I changed. I don't really know how or when exactly. I have always found myself trapped in a straight-jacket. Sixteen years of stigma, ten horrible life-mutilating hospital admissions, the daily roller-coaster of completely unpredictable extreme mood and energy swings, debilitated by the exhaustion of insomnia, sleeping pill hangovers and daily medication.
So I decided I would no longer be afraid and try to choose who to trust. I would tell everyone, and wait to see who chose to trust me. I came out publicly on Facebook and the positive support which met me was overwhelming. One amazing and brave old friend stepped up and posted about how he had once distanced himself from me purely because he didn't know how to respond to me or what was real when I was unwell. He is one of my greatest “fans” now.
I am worthwhile because I have found my voice
People say how strong and brave I am. I think it is precisely because of the years of opposition and suppressive stigma I have faced that I actually found this courage. When I was depressed and afraid I certainly had none. Only I have the power to change my mind, only I have the power to change my world and how I live in it. So I can be the risk taker if I want to, throw my straight-jacket to the wind and let it fall where it may.
The me that once sat quivering in the corner of the locked solitary confinement room, or held down kicking and screaming by four nurses and forcibly sedated with a massive needle, that once hid in unwashed pyjamas and a dirty dressing gown - the belt taken away by the nurses because “ I pose a risk to myself and other patients” - that petrified young woman never dreamed that she would ever feel worthwhile again.
But I do. I am worthwhile because I have found my voice and I am using it to free myself from a straight-jacket of my own creation and in so doing, others are uplifted and inspired.
Every fence which has ever held me in lies burning
I give public talks about my illness and share my story, disclosing details which offer deep insight into my experiences. I have never yet questioned my choice to do so and I have received nothing but vociferous support, praise and solidarity. I advocate wholeheartedly for people to do the same.
Every snarl of stigma has dissolved into air. Every whip which has ever thrashed me with condemnation and every fence which has ever held me in lies burning.
I've started a bonfire. Stigma is powerless ash at my feet.
Miranda de Barra was diagnosed bipolar in 1998 when she was in her twenties. She became a Time to Change Champion after attending Speaking Out training earlier this year. Miranda is a blogger and public speaker, and an ambassador for See Change, Ireland.