I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 13. Looking back, this was both a blessing and a curse. I was lucky to receive my diagnosis at a young age and have time to gain some insight and stability by my early 20s. However, the shame a young teenager can feel carrying a diagnosis such as bipolar disorder can be detrimental. I hid my diagnosis – and the self-harm, ER visits and hospitalizations – from my peers. When I was hospitalized in the mental health unit at age 17, I felt like my entire world would end if anyone I knew found out. I took me several years, two manic episodes, a few depressive episodes, three hospitalizations, multiple ER visits and a suicide attempt to realize owning my struggle was going to be an important part of my recovery. Since my suicide attempt in 2009, being forthcoming and open about having bipolar has had many benefits, and there are many reasons why I continue to disclose my illness without fear.
1. It leads to acceptance.
It wasn’t until my 20s and after my first true manic episode that I was able to accept my diagnosis as a fact of life. I will never forget the morning I had been up all night and had done something impulsive and embarrassing. I was telling my mother what I had done and talking very quickly. I paused and said, “I am so manic right now, aren’t I?” After that moment, I realized I needed to seek treatment for my illness and was soon able to get on the right track. I wasn’t automatically better, but being able to tell people in my life about my diagnosis helped me to find support I could turn to while I was struggling.
2. It reduces stigma.
In my opinion, recovery can be a great time to disclose your diagnosis to others, especially if you’re celebrating successes. It makes people who might not otherwise be empathetic realize people with mental illness are just like them. Once someone realizes this, I believe it’s easier for them to have empathy when someone is struggling and symptomatic as well. The majority of people are shocked to find out my diagnosis and I try to use my stability as a platform for fighting stigma whenever I can.
3. It helps me reach out to others.
Because I’m so open about what I’ve been through, people will reach out to me when they have a family member who is struggling, or when they’re struggling themselves. Hearing about my journey makes others in a similar situation realize they aren’t alone. Once I realized how passionate I was about helping other people like me, I decided to pursue a career in advocacy. I don’t always disclose my diagnosis and my story, but sometimes it is relevant to the situation and helps clients know the person they are talking to understands where they are coming from.
4. It’s part of my parenting journey.
Being open about my diagnosis has been a large part of my parenting journey. I’ve had to make decisions and seek support that will allow me to be the best mother I can be. I don’t plan on hiding the fact I have bipolar disorder from my children. My hope is that they’ll look back and see this as something we faced with strength. I want them to know there’s no shame in having a mental illness, and if they end up being diagnosed with one as well, I want them to know that, as their mother, I’ll be a strong ally.
5. It makes me feel accountable.
The more I talk about my recovery and the journey that brought me here, the more accountable I am to stay well. This means following through with my treatment, whether that means medication, therapy, doctor’s appointments etc., and knowing when I’m not feeling my best. I have many people looking to me as an example, and while that may seem like a lot of pressure, the accountability factor is actually a huge positive for me. Knowing how many people would be affected if I discontinued treatment and became ill again keeps me in check. When you’ve been stable for so long, it’s easy to wonder if you exaggerated your symptoms — maybe you’d be OK without any treatment. It happens all the time, even to those with the best intentions in their recovery. Accountability is a large part of my motivation in recovery, and I’m glad being open about having bipolar has helped keep me in check.
If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.