I’m hiding bipolar. Here’s why. By Anonymous

Photo of woman wearing smiling face mask

Editor’s note: I was confronted when we received this anonymous submission. It’s very common these days to see campaigns encouraging people to speak up about mental health issues. When you work in mental health or the media, you often have the privilege of being able to be open about your lived experience. We applaud celebrities and advocates who ‘share their journeys of recovery’. It’s too easy to forget that many, if not most, people live and work in environments where there is a risk attached to disclosing if you have mental health issues. Stigma is real, and this blog post is a reminder of how stigma makes living with mental illness harder than it should be. It’s also a reminder to be gentle with those around you – because you don’t always know their story.  Thank you, Anon, for sharing your story. — Sarah, Co-Editor, Our Mental Health Matters

When I was 12 I went on my first rollercoaster ride. I don’t remember it being a particularly pleasant experience, in fact I was terrified. Little did I know that was just the beginning, that my life was going to be one huge rollercoaster and it would take until I was over 40 to know what was causing it, and to find a way to get off.

As a child I was never encouraged to speak about feelings. My parents are not overly warm people and discussing emotions was never on the agenda. It is hard for people to understand how someone who had 4 younger sisters could have felt so lonely, but I did. I was an awkward girl, with low social skills and an incredible low opinion of myself. If there was ever a time that I did do well at something or felt any kind of jubilation, it was squashed very quickly. My family just had no time for encouragement or stroking of egos, and so I learnt very early in life to deal with things alone and not to seek out help. As a result the thoughts and voices in my head stayed there. I didn’t understand it at all and nobody ever spoke of mental illness. I knew that I was different but I just couldn’t talk to anyone about it, so it is of no surprise to me at all that now 35 years later, I still talk to only a very select few. I still feel lonely and I still hide my pain and pretend to be someone that does not have a mental illness.

I could write chapters and chapters about how the rollercoaster of my life has affected my youth, my young adult life and my marriages. How having a mental illness has been one of the most devastating and challenging things I have ever had to face, but the hardest most painful challenge of it all is the lie I live. The fact is to this day my parents still know nothing of my diagnosis, and will go to their graves never knowing. That I front up to work everyday and not one of my co-workers knows (or in my opinion would ever even think) that I am bipolar.

When I was first diagnosed I thought about being open and honest to everyone; that being bipolar was just another layer of who I was and that just having a name now to explain who I was wouldn’t change a thing. But only two days later when visiting friends, as one of my friends was talking about a person he knew, he spoke in such a belittling way about this person, describing erratic behavior and using words like crazy, off his head and mental, and then the kicker, ‘I think he must be bipolar’. My husband and I looked at each other and we knew at that moment that telling everyone was not going to be an option.

There are still so many people who are incapable of understanding mental health. A few weeks after my diagnosis I saw my parents. We are not close, and might see each other twice a year if that, yet I was still contemplating telling them. After all they are my mum and dad, above everyone else shouldn’t they understand? Apparently not. Over a cup of tea my mother bought up a conversation about someone we knew being depressed. My mother stated that she did not understand how this person could be depressed, she had a great life, lots of money and a wonderful husband. My mother stated that this lady was being self-indulgent and needed to get up and get on with life. Dad agreed, he claimed that every second person thinks they are depressed – wham, guess what?! I’m now not telling Mum or Dad either!

Perhaps I am selling my parents short; perhaps if I was to sit down with them they would understand, but I doubt it. I know enough of their beliefs and coping mechanisms to know that they would say I was being a drama queen, that I was always wanting attention and trying to make it all about me. I just cannot hear those words out loud again from them, I just cannot put myself through that, so I tell them nothing, I don’t lie, I just don’t talk about it.

I have a wonderful job. I am blessed with a boss who is kind and generous and gives me autonomy to run his very successful business for him. I handle millions of dollars each year for him, and he trusts me with all his finances, with major decisions and with his staff. There have been times that the stress has caused me to have small breakdowns or to spiral into deep, deep depression, however he doesn’t know that. When the episode occurred that finally saw me get a diagnosis, he never knew. I lied, I told him I had to have the week off because I was very ill with ear infections. He has never shown any sign of even remotely thinking I have any sort of depression or mental illness. I have never shown him a single sign of it. I have no idea how I can do that. How can I be so mentally strong when I am at work and walk out the door and fall to pieces? How when the black dog comes to visit I manage to get myself out of bed and go to work, and then come home and hide under the covers. I don’t understand it, but its what I do. Its almost like turning a switch and having my set of behaviors for work and my set of behaviors outside of work. I have heard my boss speak of people that have depression or anxiety. I know he doesn’t even pretend to understand it, that he jokes about mental illness rather than tries to be accepting of it. I know I can’t tell him, and I know that I wont.

I am exhausted, being two people is very tiring, but its how my life is and I am sure I am not alone. My hope is that one day people will try to understand, that there will be no need for lies or hiding of our true selves. I think we are a little way off that yet, and that’s a pity.

 

By Anonymous

“I am a 47 year old mother and grandmother, working full time and leading a very busy, fulfilling life.”

Photo by Geda Žyvatkauskaitė used under CC license.

Festive Season Affective Disorder

by Daniel Reeders

I’d hold out against it as long as I could, but each year in early December, I froze, giving way to that familiar feeling of dread. Then a couple of years ago I began seeing a therapist, and that year I raised with her the plans I was making to get through the festive season: dinner with Mum and boyfrang at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas eve, talking pretty much exclusively about television to avoid the emotional history Mum loves to discuss; lunch on Christmas day with Dad and my sister and step-mother, hoping he wouldn’t drink too much, before going home to start drinking myself.

My therapist doesn’t shake her head, but she gently pointed out that going into ‘survival mode’ – priming your fight or flight response – pretty much guarantees misunderstanding and conflict. No matter how much you try and anticipate what your parent might do, she said, you can’t; they’re too good at it.

Christmas that year was a doozie.

I wound up in emotional deep-freeze afterwards. I finally cracked through the ice in March, with an email asking Mum “did you really mean to say that?” Afterwards, I felt so relieved, I thought I was having a manic episode, and I went and got myself assessed for bipolar. Turns out I don’t have it: just recurring episodes of major depression with relatively predictable triggers.

Christmas is the perfect storm: family, end-of-year exhaustion, and repetition.

Every school holiday after their divorce, my parents had the same fight: over the meaning of a single word in the access (custody) agreement. Mum argued Dad must take his children for an extra three days every school holiday; Dad pointed out it said that he may – and he chose not to. Apart from the message that your parents are fighting over not having you around, the difficult thing about this fight was the repetitiveness of it, its viciousness and the impossibility of averting or resolving it; if I intervened I became a target for Mum’s invective, so all I could ever do was freeze, go numb, play dead.

As anyone living with multi-episodic depression will know, there’s a certain ‘not again’ panic about the onset of an episode. One of the ways the past traps us in the present is through our re-enactment of strategies that worked for us as children in the face of challenges in adult life. Like putting on a mask and getting through Christmas. But as Brené Brown points out, you can’t selectively numb: it’s all or nothing. And when I go numb, I lose emotional perspective – feedback on whether my behaviour is consistent with my values – as well as motivation. In a word, depression. The coping strategy now sets up the problem.

My counsellor, Carol-Ann Allen, argues for an approach that recognises how the situation has changed since our childhood experiences (and the strategies we devised to cope with them). As children we were powerless: as adults we are not. She reminds me that I now have much wider scope for agency and my own skills for dealing with people being difficult.

One possible strategy, recommended by Carol-Ann, involves keeping your sense of humour in play – via the slight detachment of a conscious appreciation of how perfectly in-character the difficult people in our lives are being when they throw us a curve ball. When you see it coming, instead of freezing, you might think, ‘Damn, that remark is so perfectly you. Five stars!’

Helpful tip: don’t verbalise this thought.

Carol-Ann Allen will be giving a talk on ‘Making peace with your parents’ at Midsumma Festival in Melbourne (February 3) with a particular focus on queer and trans experiences of coming out. This article reflects what I’ve taken away from our sessions and any errors or omissions are mine alone.

About the author

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Daniel Reeders is a PhD candidate looking at stigma and public health. He blogs about these topics and many more at Bad Blood.