Confiding in Others: How to Come Out as Bipolar

July 26, 2009 at 1:50 pm | Posted in Sociability | 1 Comment

At times, I find it tremendously difficult to tell people that I’m bipolar.

It depends on the context, of course — I actually announce it at the beginning of a work presentation that I give on communicating about disabilities. That’s always hard, and has gotten me some odd but deeply honest reactions. One gentleman told me during the Q&A that he was very surprised to find out that a functional, dynamic fellow employee was bipolar. He said that he always thought of bipolar people as “going postal.” Oh my. One supervisor said, “Oh, yes, my first husband was bipolar. He shot himself to death.” It’s hard to come up with a witty comeback to that one.

Many people share personal stories with me about spouses, friends and family members who are bipolar. They often ask how to get them to take their medication, a question for which I have no answer. (I take my medication eagerly, and can hardly remember the year or so when I refused treatment because I was afraid it would change my personality or rob me of my creativity.)

Perhaps the most common reaction, though, goes a little something like this, “You’re one of the most normal people I know,” or, “You seem normal to me.” This is a tough one. It’s hard to convey the seriousness of the disease without painting a bleak picture indeed. And when people see me acting “normally,” it’s hard for them to understand how devastating and life-changing an illness it is, and, indeed, how much I suffer daily, partly because of my efforts to seem normal.

I do have a couple of tips to share about how to come out, though Lord knows I still haven’t discovered the perfect formula.

1. Let people get to know you first. Don’t tell people on the first date, or even within the first couple of months of dating. Don’t spill it all out to new friends, or people you hope to befriend. Be extremely cautious in the workplace, because despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, you will almost certainly face discrimination. There’s a great temptation to be “totally honest,” to let people see the “real you” immediately. However, I’ve found that people are most likely to shy away from you instinctively if they haven’t had a chance to see how you function on a day-to-day basis. So give it a little time.

2. Do tell your family, lovers, and direct supervisor. Time it carefully and think it through in advance, but do come out. With people who may end up caring for you or accommodating you in the legal sense, it’s only fair to let them know.

3. Two excellent books on how to have relationship-rattling conversations are Crucial Conversations and The Dance of Intimacy. Both will help you to prepare the ground before blurting out anything you’ll regret. The first, in particular, give step-by-step instructions, and also includes this striking bit of wisdom: There is no gentle way to throw a hand grenade, and lots of things that you need to say are hand grenades to the recipient.

4. Don’t come out hoping to get a particular reaction. If you’re hankering after love and acceptance, wisdom and comfort, you probably need to step back and get a little distance. Yes, it would be nice if a potential lover, for example, responded in an informed and sympathetic manner, but chances are that they’ll say something awkward or even offensive. Their first reaction isn’t all that important; it’s the ongoing conversation that matters. And, of course, some people will simply reject you once they find out. You need to be prepared for that possibility, and not to invest too heavily in getting the “right” response.

5. Once you’ve told someone, it can be a tremendous relief to stop hiding simple acts like taking medication and visiting your shrink. Talking in a matter-of-fact way about these activities can help the other person to see the day-to-day reality rather than focusing on the possibility of the operatic drama.

6. Take responsibility for educating the other person if they are an important part of your life. Recommend books that you’ve found helpful, point them to Wikipedia, explain how your meds work and what sort of symptoms you show during and between episodes. It would be nice if everyone were enlightened and educated about the major mental illnesses, but most people aren’t. If you want someone to understand what it means to be bipolar, you will have to tell them.

7. Unless they’re offensive or invasive, answer any questions. For example, a friend recently asked me what would happen if I didn’t take my meds. I explained that, except for Klonopin, they’re all long-acting, so it would actually be several days before I began to sprout horns and a tail. I explained about withdrawal from SSRIs and antianxiolytics. It was a reasonable question, and a good conversation resulted.

Let me end with a bit of a subject change. I’ve been told that some gay and lesbian people are offended by any comparison between coming out as bipolar and coming out as gay. The reasoning goes like this: you’re comparing us to someone with a disability, therefore you’re saying that homosexuality is a disability, and unnatural and undesirable.

Hm. Well, merely by drawing an analogy, I’m not suggesting that the two are the same thing. That’s the nature of an analogy; you’re comparing two different things, not claiming that two things are identical. An analogy implies differences as well as likenesses.

Also, is it so horrible to be disabled that it’s an insult to even draw a comparison? I would argue not. In fact, there are thriving mad pride and pro-disability communities that seek acceptance in a culture that places a much lower value on our very lives. Yes, homophobia is terrible an people have been killed for for being gay. The Nazis practiced genocide on homosexuals. But the first systematic mass-killings in Nazi Germany were of disabled people, including the mentally ill. As a result, I would argue that “coming out” is not the exclusive property of the gay community.

That’s all for now. I will try to write an introductory post and an “About” page sometime today.

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  1. I have repeatedly come across high functioning bipolar people…and I think a lot of extremely successful people have a certain amount of mania (and depression) that drives them. To be extremely successful in something, having a little bit of mania to drive you and drive your thoughts can actually be an asset. It is just that at certain levels of society, it is considered “good” to be obsessively driven…but in this same society, you must hide the depression (as that is seen as a sign of weakness). I think a lot of people hide it with alcohol, or obsessive exercise, or even drugs. But those who let the mania out, while hiding the depression in socially acceptable outlets or places, often are the ones who reach the pinnacles of their craft or area (politicians, executives, artists, etc). We just so stigmatize labels, that we often don’t see the person, or their abilities, behind the label.

    My god-father is like this. He is an extremely high functioning (Yale law school) lawyer who never sleeps and is always “on”. He found out about 10 years ago that he was bipolar…and it really explained a lot. About every 6 months he used to go into these horrible depressions and would either drink, or compulsively exercise…or both. But when he was “up”, he was a force that could not be stopped.

    I think all of us have these swings in us, to a much milder degree. Is there a certain line in the sand that it becames a “disability”? Is there a certain level where it begins to define us, rather than us “controlling” it? The answer to that, I believe, varies with each individual. And for some, using medication is what is required for us to wrestle that control back…only some of us self-medicate, and fail to see the consequences.

    There is a book I read, it was sci-fi (ya, I know…), about a society that looked upon different functioning states of mind not as disabilities…but merely as ways people acted, and functioned, within the world. This society nurtured all individuals, and helped them find a place in the world that “made sense” to them…and where their “disability” would actually be an asset. Their entire society was based around exploring and embracing the uniqueness in different functioning people…finding out how that made them excel, and then nurturing it. Good book, actually.

    Anyway…I’ve found your blog. 🙂


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