“There’s no doubt about it,” my doctor told me as he looked over my test results. “You have bipolar disorder.”
His words almost bounced off of me as if he was talking to someone else. The entire ordeal had started with what I thought was a need for a mild anxiety medication. Bipolar disorder was the last thing I expected to be diagnosed with.
This blog post isn’t about the process of diagnosis, though. It suffices me to tell you that my family doctor began asking questions when I asked for anxiety medication, and he insisted I take a more thorough testing before he did anything else, and it all eventually led to the extremely unexpected diagnosis… Bipolar disorder.
“I honestly have no idea how you’ve made it as far as you have and as successfully as you have,” he told me. I didn’t really know what that meant. It would take a lot of research and a lot of self-examination after-the-fact to understand why he said what he said. I just know that I left his office, and started driving home, I tried not to think about it. Then I got a call from someone close to me who had been supporting me throughout my newfound anxiety problem.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
I told her it was both good and bad, and that I’d rather not talk about it at that moment.
“Why not?” she replied.
“Because,” I told her. “I guess I’m not ready to accept it just yet.”
She pressed me for more information. I resisted. She assured me it would be okay and pressed a little more the way supportive people know how to do.
I finally gave in and said it. “I have bipolar disorder,” I replied so quietly that I’m surprised she heard me at all. It was only in that moment that I realized just what kind of weird stigma I had in my own mind when it came to this particular mental illness.
I burst into tears and started bawling.
Saying the words out loud made it suddenly real, but even worse… I knew they were somehow true when I said them. I didn’t ever think I could have bipolar disorder before that day, but suddenly a giant wave of memories that suddenly made sense began hitting me all at once.
I didn’t just cry in that moment. I lost it.
She didn’t say anything when I did. She just let me cry on the phone.
I pulled into a grocery store parking lot and finally got it a bit more under control. “Why is knowing you have bipolar disorder such a bad thing to you?” she said.
“Because,” I blurted. “Once I have that label, I know I’ll never find…”
I lost it again. Waterworks. I couldn’t get the final word out after repeated attempts. I tried again. Again I couldn’t say the words. I tried again. I couldn’t actually say what the truth of it was to me in that moment.
“Never find, what?” she said. “Love?” she intuitively asked.
“Yes!” I said through more fat ugly tears. “Nobody is ever going to want me if I have bipolar disorder”
Stigma much? Unexpectedly and apparently so.
But, you see… I already had bipolar disorder. It’s not like I suddenly went to the doctor and went home with the illness. I already was doing all the things my disorder causes me to do. I was already experiencing the life of a person who has bipolar disorder. Nothing was different in that moment at all except that I suddenly had a dirty little label to go with it.
This friend was incredibly supportive. Somehow she talked me off of the mental ledge by reminding me of those very truths I mentioned in the last paragraph.
Nothing was different about me because of it. Yes, I had a label now… But, she pointed out, I also now had an awareness so that I could actually find the tools to live a productive life with my illness. I could now find the medication that would let me experience a normalcy. I could now discuss the reality of my mental illness with any new person that I might meet or begin to date, which could only help things.
I had no idea just how many buried beliefs I subconsciously had about people with bipolar disorder until I was faced with having it myself. It’s not as if I have ever sat and pondered it, or judged anyone with it, or even been greatly affected by someone who has bipolar disorder. If anything, the opposite is true. I have a couple very close friends with bipolar disorder, and I’ve done nothing but be there and support them and love them.
So, where did the stigma come from?
Why did allowing myself to say the words “I have bipolar disorder” cause me to immediately break down and feel like any chance of a successful life or of finding love was now gone?
I honestly don’t know all the answers for that. I know that the way people with bipolar disorder are portrayed on television and in movies has had a part of it. But, if I had to guess, the bigger stigma has been slowly trickled and stacked into my mind over the years by being around people who claim their ex, or their parent, or their roommate, or their ______ had bipolar disorder.
Their stories were always horrendous. They weren’t exactly understanding when they talked about these people. They were always very embittered by it. They were always very… hurt, and that hurt was always so apparent that it almost became physical in nature.
As I have thought about it the last six months or so, I think that hearing other people’s nightmare stories about dating people with bipolar disorder and living with people who had bipolar disorder just made me feel deep down like there wasn’t much redeemable about people who suffered with the disorder.
Listen, I can’t blame anyone for it who has been there. Did you read my last blog post? In those moments in my past where my disorder triggered, I did some pretty shitty things to people I truly cared about. I did those things out of the blue, and I had no control over myself when I did.
But do you know what else is true when I look back completely honestly? Those terrible moments were few and far between. There were indeed in-betweens, and the in-betweens were pretty damned “normal” and amazing. The goodness existed. The great times were real. I always treated the people I dated so awesomely in the in-betweens. I treat my friends awesomely in the in-betweens. I treated my family awesomely in the in-betweens. I was always a romantic, and I was respectful, and I was uplifting and positive, and I was supportive of those I cared about in the in-betweens.
I have to believe the same is true for most people with bipolar disorder. I have to believe a lot of people with the disorder have mostly good and plenty of long in-betweens, just like me.
So, why did I break into such an ugly cry (and I mean ugly cry) when I found out I have bipolar disorder?
I think it’s because the reality of this illness is that the shitty moments, and the depressions, and all the hurtful things… Well… They obviously hurt people so profoundly that all the good in-betweens tend to eventually evaporate for the people who tried to love them and eventually couldn’t.
But… COME ON.
Horrible endings can’t be such an all-encompassing truth for the entire 1-3% of the population who have bipolar disorder, can it?
There have to be thriving relationships, which experience bipolar hiccups (big or small), where there are understanding partners, and supportive partners, and people who hold onto the in-betweens and come to understand and forgive the hard moments, right? There just have to be right? There have to be couples who have made it years or even decades.
And if those couples do exist, why don’t I ever hear those stories?
I have thought about this so much. I have thought about the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder. I have thought about the day I burst into tears after a label was finally placed on my illness.
I only have one answer for the lack of balance in the overall discussion.
People just don’t really discuss their functional bipolar relationships openly. Those with good, functioning, loving relationships (with people who do have bipolar disorder) simply don’t talk about it. Their significant others don’t talk about it. They don’t openly spread hope or bring a more balanced face to it. They don’t do much at all to help get rid of the stigma.
I don’t know. I can’t really blame them. Maybe it’s to respect the privacy of the person they care about who has bipolar disorder. Maybe it’s because there is just a little too much hurt mixed into the goodness that it’s easier to not discuss it at all. Maybe it’s because things just became a bit more “normal” once medication became involved? I honestly have no idea. I’m just guessing at this part of it all.
I simply know that I don’t really ever hear about it from the perspective of people who have made it work or made it thrive, and I usually hear quite an earful about it from the perspective of people who have been hurt by it and no longer have those people with bipolar disorder in their lives.
I suppose that’s just the truth of how a lot of stigmas are born and how they are propagated throughout society.
And can we be honest about something else… If you think about it, bipolar disorder is kind of a “get out of responsibility free” card much the same way a partner cheating can be. “My partner cheated” is a golden ticket to not have to take any responsibility in a bad relationship. So is mental illness. God, we love our golden tickets when relationships fail, don’t we? “My partner had bipolar disorder” is the exact same thing. After all, we can’t be responsible at all, or judged by others at all, if the other person was batshit crazy, right?
I’ve had about six months to think about my diagnosis. I’ve had half a year to think back to all the goodness in my life and all the things my disorder triggered. I’ll bet the ratio is easily 50 to 1, with the positive outweighing the negative. Maybe even 200 to 1 or better. I live a pretty great and honest life.
Yes, I cried when I found out my biggest struggles are caused by bipolar disorder. Learning that I have it was a really difficult moment in my life. I desperately didn’t want that label when I first was given it.
I also now realize that this mental illness doesn’t define me. It can’t define me. The only thing that defines me are my actions, whether those actions are triggered by the bipolar disorder or they are part of the majority of better actions I take on any given day.
The good, the bad, the ugly, the sad. My actions are everything.
I can’t change the stigma and demand tolerance or understanding. I can only write about my experience with it and hope to help in what little way I can.
If people, new or old in my life, want to hear the words “bipolar disorder” and immediately decide who I am and what that means, I can’t help that. If they want to discredit the vast majority of moments where I am amazing as a human, I can’t help that either. All I can do is keep living the way I always have, which is as good as I possibly can in every situation that I can.
If that’s not enough to overcome the hard moments brought about by my illness, so be it. If that’s not enough to be remembered for my true and sincere goodness in all of the in-betweens, oh well.
Nothing actually changed the day I got the diagnosis. I was still who I always was… A person who tries as hard as he can to always be a good, decent member of the human race. It’s who I will always strive to be, too, diagnosis or not.
Dan Pearce | Dan Pearce Was Here