Is It OK Not to Tell Some People That I’m Manic-Depressive?

February 8, 2010 at 5:19 am | Posted in Fighting Prejudice, Sociability | 1 Comment

Secret revealed

Will opening that door illuminate your relationship, or will it simply blind others?

Over the last few days, I’ve been getting to know an intriguing couple that I met at a party last week. The lady has just started grad school in English Lit, and she’s quite a bit younger than the gentleman. I’m inclined to regard this indulgently, since when I was her age I consistently and deliberately sought out much older men. I feel a bit protective of her because she reminds me of myself at that age. In short, I liked them both immediately, and wanted to deepen the acquaintance.

(Those of you who know me are thinking, Wait, back up — since when is a mouse like you going to parties? It was a very small party, and it’s the first one I’ve been to since grad school. And I have been hypomanic, which makes social situations effortless, even fun.)

The night we met, I didn’t mention that I’m bipolar; it didn’t come up. After the party, once I’d made plans to get together with this couple, I thought, Hm, I suppose I should come clean. I found myself resisting, however. Eventually I decided not to tell them, and went so far as to remove any books about bipolar disorder from my bookshelves before having them over. As I was stowing the books in one of the upstairs closets, I thought, well, I’ve crossed the line from omission into deception. After some consideration, I concluded that that’s acceptable, even that it serves a higher good.

Most bipolar people do struggle with the issue of coming out. Many people who aren’t bipolar have conditions that affect their relationships and identity, and that involve a coming-out process. It might be interesting, therefore, to review my reasoning.

1. Some things really are private. It’s important that I tell everyone to whom I’m close, because whether I like it or not, my being bipolar has a huge impact on my friends, family, and partners (something to investigate in these pages eventually). I certainly wouldn’t try to hide it indefinitely. If the friendship deepens, I may rely on them to watch and judge my symptoms. Like anyone, I need the people around me to tell me when I’m exercising poor judgment or mistaking being an overbearing blowhard for charm and wit. It’s not reasonable to expect this from relative strangers, and I have the same need of privacy and right to it that anyone would claim.

When you tell someone about a deeply personal problem, you deepen intimacy with them. That cuts two ways. It’s often a relief to peel off the facade, and it can be a genuine pleasure simply to get to know people better. Without a doubt, there’s a point in every relationship where concealing certain facts requires a series of omissions that limit intimacy sharply. At the same time, anyone who’s been the recipient of creepy TMI (too much information) will testify that there’s a stage in any relationship when this constitutes a violation.

Here’s an extreme (though funny) example. Once, during a first date, a gentleman not only told me that he’d been sexually abused by his older brother, but detailed his prostate problems and a distressing digestive issue. All of this came out in two hours, primarily over dinner.

Now, my family is in the habit of sharing even very private medical problems, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that. There’s no point in being mysterious about such things, and sometimes it’s helpful to get advice. But the prostates of strangers fail the “breakfast test” that The New York Times adheres to in its crossword puzzle. That is, since many people work puzzles at breakfast, the editors refrain from relying on nauseating or improper words and allusions.

In fact, TMI is unattractive for several reasons. Among other things, when someone lets you in on such secrets, it becomes clear that he is indiscreet, to put it mildly; he must also need an audience desperately, which is unattractive.

I think we avoid people who raise red flags, not just because we’re worried that they’ll be high-maintenance, but because we think, “Christ, if she’ll parade that out on the first date, then what sort of horrors is she saving up for later?” Everyone struggles, and every relationship is high-maintenance at times. That’s OK. It’s not OK to demand extensive support and sympathy where intimacy cannot reasonably exist.

2. I am tired of people, including myself, constantly seeing me through the lens of my disease. I admit that this drove me more than any other reason. It seems like everyone knows that I’m bipolar, since I am open about it even at work. This is for the best, but certainly there are days when it grates on me to have every person I run across ask, “How are you?” in that special tone that people trot out when they’re walking on eggshells. We preserve social facades, not just for others’ comfort, but because doing so allows us to experiment with different roles and behavior. That’s an enjoyable aspect of social interaction, and I believe that it’s natural and healthy.

3. It’s important to fight stigma, but I don’t have a responsibility to do it everywhere and all the time. In addition, one powerful way to fight it is to present my charming self for several months, then spring my secret on people. That way they have a chance to get to know me without pathologizing my every move and utterance.

That’s what I did with my last boyfriend — a first for me — and I think it’s part of what made the relationship possible. And I almost lost an important and ongoing connection by saying too much too soon. By now the gentleman knows that I’m responsible, even stable, but early on my illness gave him the heebie-jeebies. He later told me that he wished I’d saved that fact for later, since his negative but reasonable reaction nearly ended a relationship that’s become important to both of us.

4. Typically people experiment with different sorts of honesty during different phases of their lives, depending, among other things, on how much their identity is tied up in an issue. In my 20s I felt compelled to to tell every serious boyfriend that I’d been raped, since it would certainly affect our sex life. Now that it doesn’t, I often don’t think to mention it. It has simply lost relevance. (For which I say, Hip-hip hooray! People can overcome trauma!)

That’s my reasoning. Close relationships can’t reach maturity without absolute honesty, but in the absence of discretion they can’t germinate. In a like regard, I don’t have a moral responsibility to educate people every time I draw breath to speak, and eventually a fact may reach its expiration date.

I’d be interested to know what others think, and what sort of experiences they’ve had with omissions and TMI. Please do comment.

Love to all.


1 Comment »

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  1. Much better to be too slow to share information than to be too quick. First, I think one needs to get to know the acquaintance well enough to know what news can be shared, and how best to do it.that can reduce potential tension and make the process easier for both involved.
    Second, but related, I get unnerved when people share deeply personal information soon after they get to know me.I wonder about their motives for telling me (Are you looking for me to take care of you?) but then I almost feel like I need to share some personal secret of mine, and at that point I’m not ready to.
    From my own experience, I have found that sharing personal info hurts far more than it helps. I often feel worse for sharing, too, because I can’t share everything, so I pick and choose, get fuzzy on some details, or omit big parts. Then I feel far more deceptive than if I’d never opened my mouth.
    So, RandR, let them get to know the wonderful, witty you. Once they get to know you a little better then you can tell them anything and it won’t get in the way of friendship.

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