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.
Have you ever felt hurt? Like to the core of your being? Your spouse said or did something that you heard as if there is something wrong with you? That you...By Elly van Laar