Suffering From Bipolar Disorder While Striving for Peace

Bipolar disorder hasn’t been easy.  I’ve been hospitalized five times, lost important  relationships, and endured life interruptions due to the fallout from my major  episodes.  Every day I live with chronic symptoms and try to notice warning signs.  If  I can’t sleep, I take an emergency antipsychotic drug that knocks me into an ornery  haze.   When I’m feeling agitated or down, I try to resolve the conflicts early on  before they can fester and become trauma for me – or worse, before I deteriorate  and traumatize others.  

I became a professional mediator because I needed conflict resolution skills to help  my own recovery, and I started openly sharing my personal experiences because I  wanted to demonstrate that people living with mental health problems can fit into the world of mediation.  I thought I was doing the right thing in sharing my story of  bipolar disorder because research showed contact education was the most effective  way to reduce stigma.  Yet it turned out the triumphant picture I painted backfired.   

A parent approached me to tell me they wished their child with mental illness were more like me.  A mediator wrote that the people with mental illness who she was  serving needed to be treated differently because they weren’t as resilient as I was.   Contact with me was leading some learners to judge the people who didn’t seem as  strong as I appeared to be.  Worst of all, I wasn’t actually as strong as I’d made  myself look.   

As we all do at work, I’d been hiding my daily struggles and putting forth a face of  professionalism.  I’d been covering – masking my identity in order to fit in with  social expectations instead of letting people appreciate what my regular life was  truly like living with this serious mental illness. 

Early into my speaking career I was told to focus on the rainbow at the end of the  story, so that’s what I did.  Desperate to impress people with my tale of recovery, my  programs never revealed my current, chronic day-to-day symptoms and  vulnerabilities.  Participants were impressed to hear how, years ago, I did not sleep for four straight days, I believed I would time travel to stop my parents from getting  divorced, and I was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  But then came the rainbow.  I recovered and transformed into the stable person they saw  today who was delivering them a well-polished presentation. 

These crowds had no idea that, behind the scenes, that I could barely sleep the night  before I gave any of these talks, setting dozens of alarms and waking up every hour  nervous that I might have a travel problem and not make it to my session.  They did not see that I collapsed emotionally after every session, and sometimes took days to  depressively recover afterwards.  They never saw that, though I responded so genially to upsetting questions about my condition, later I struggled to contain my resentment over people demeaning me in this manner – I channeled that hostile

energy into writing poetry and journals and articles, I withdrew socially to avoid  being bitter in my other interactions, and I kept all of that hidden so as not to spoil the rainbow. 

People living with mental illnesses like mine are legally entitled to ask for special  adjustments from organizations so we can have an easier time communicating and  accessing services.  But I did not ask for help. I wanted to seem strong despite my bipolar disorder, so I always felt an extra burden to be more professional than  average.  Afraid of rejection, I thought I must prevent any potential stigma that  might lead someone to dismiss my voice.  I was scared folks wouldn’t want to work  with me if they knew it could get this hard for me.   

That was wrong.  None of us should feel pressure to cover our challenges rather  than seek the support we’re entitled to have to help us manage our needs. 

For me, some of the most stressful interactions have always been related to my  work because I care so much about it and I was always nervous one single mistake  could ruin my entire reputation.  Recently, I encountered a disability activist who  directly accused me of being incapable of functioning professionally as part of their petition to have my participation restricted on a community listserv.  I was also  ignored by editors of a prestigious academic journal that stopped responding after I  made a disability request to communicate about an invited article over e-mail  instead of through our previously scheduled Zoom meeting. 

Conflicts like these are when I’m most likely to fall apart from the pain.  They are the  times when I need the most support.  Yet when I finally dropped my cover and  shared my sensitivities during those situations, these people ignored me and  avoided me rather than collaborating with me.  In the past, I would always take  those dismissals as a cue to once again mask my vulnerabilities.  After all, I couldn’t possibly risk letting the dispute resolution world discover my difficulties. 

How would I ever complete my life’s work if people thought I was disorganized and  unreliable?  Often, they already thought that automatically just knowing I had  bipolar disorder – wasn’t it my job to prove them wrong? 

But things are different now.  Being dismissed by experts I trusted, while discussing  the sensitive topic of discrimination toward people with psychiatric disabilities, and  all of this happening at the same time I am mourning a profound interpersonal loss  within my family – the pressure has finally become too much for me.   

I cannot act strong while I’m suffering this much.  I share all of this now by necessity,  not by choice.  Yet I also finally realize that being open about my vulnerabilities is  the right decision for me.  However it came about, part of my life’s work is learning  to let my guard down and reveal the symptoms I struggle with on a regular basis.  

Of course no one should ever feel compelled to reveal their fragilities in order to be  seen, heard, and treated with dignity.  But maybe the only way we can get to that compassionate ideal is for some of us to set the example that, mental disorder or  not, we all benefit from living in a society where we can comfortably ask for help  instead of fearing stigma. 

The strength people saw in me was always a bit dishonest because I’d never been strong enough to reveal how fragile I’ve always been.  I thought I had been brave in  disclosing my diagnosis when I was twenty years old and living openly with it ever  since.  But I was also minimizing my symptoms and hiding behind a misleading image of resilience.  It’s only now, fifteen years later, that I’m finally strong enough  to share a fuller picture:   

I work hard every single day to cope with my mental illness.  I need help and  support.  I can’t just stay focused on the rainbows at the end of the story because I  can’t weather the storms alone.

                        author

Dan Berstein

Dan Berstein, MHS is a mediator and trainer known for his work in mental health communication, accessibility, and challenging behaviors. Through his company MH Mediate, Dan provides tools, trainings, and resources to help all kinds of mental health stakeholders talk about mental health, resolve conflicts, and address challenging behaviors in… MORE >

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