How Do I Tell New Friends About My History of Bipolar Disorder?
Halfway across frozen Lake Mendota, I checked the sky. My toes had started sticking together in one icy block. The sun was lowering, and I continued to follow it toward the shore. Hours before, I’d gotten a burger at the Student Union. I discovered in biology lab that I forgot how to read. The quiz looked like a glowing, empty white sheet. So bright. Sitting with my burger, people next to me moved around, reaching across the table, mouths falling open, and they were almost disgusting. Too fast. Soon I’d leave school for the second time.
I met my husband the summer after I dropped out of two colleges, landed in the psych ward twice, secondly for a psychotic episode following the sun across frozen Lake Mendota. He showed up to my friend’s dorm room for free ice cream one of my first days back on campus, and I sat on a mattress and worked on my ice cream and worried that I was being too shy. I had nothing to say. “Wow, he’s really cool,” I thought, listening to him talk about his plans that summer, working in a particle physics lab. He was going to be a senior.
I couldn’t think of anything to say. The coolest thing I’d done that year was when my godmother let me visit her in Los Angeles to cheer me up, and instead of sleeping all day alone in my bedroom and daydreaming about killing myself, we’d gone to Disney World and, once, a club with her sisters (20 years older than me) where I danced near some guy. He thought I was “normal.” I should have been thrilled my life was getting back on track, but I felt like I was observing myself — slouching back and forth in the dark club, a yell forced out of me going down Splash Mountain — slowly waking up.
A decade later, my husband visited me every day in the psych hospital, where I’d stayed four times in 13 months.
When we met, I told my husband I had bipolar disorder right away, in one of our first conversations. I thought people were supposed to know.
I cried when I told my freshman dorm-mates at a house meeting. I told members of my service group in our one-on-one orientations. Over a picnic in the Quad, I swallowed and told the three roommates who would become my best friends: “I have something to say.”
Somewhere along the line, I got out of the habit of telling people. I don’t hide anything. More recent friends find out from my writing or the aftermath of my latest episode or hospital stay. But I don’t get those loaded moments, waiting for a pause in the conversation when I can reveal my diagnosis.
Along with the diagnosis, I’ve stopped telling people about the year of breakdown, the people who hurt me and the voices I heard. The frozen lake.
Maybe I’m not as brave anymore, or not as energetic in my relationships. Maybe I already reached a critical mass of people who know enough about me. When you have enough people, you should get to relax a little. Are we supposed to put ourselves out there to everybody, forever?
My therapist would say I’m more confident now — that 13 years later, my life is a lot bigger. I don’t need to introduce myself by my diagnosis or my trauma anymore, she would say.
And I would nod and applaud myself. Then I would go home and smash garlic cloves for dinner and eat across from my husband, that guy who ate ice cream 13 years ago. Talk on the phone to my sister, text one of my grad school pals to make weekend plans. Walk down our hallway to fill the laundry machine, underneath photos of our wedding day, full of our friends laughing.
My life has people in it because of what I told. I’m not lying in my bedroom alone, trying to will myself to sleep for the 20th hour. And that’s probably what I wanted, waiting for the pause in the conversation, rehearsing the lines in my head, ready to break in with, “I have something to say.”
“And my shoes got filled with snow,” I’ll tell my more recent friends at our next hangout, my feet kicked onto the coffee table while the movie credits roll. “I wore the wrong type of shoes, thin white leather. But I did it. I got to the other side of the lake. More than three miles.”
Nobody in the room has heard this story except my husband. I met these friends in grad school or they’re my husband’s coworkers or his childhood pals. They’ve visited me in the psych ward and gone to my 30th birthday dinner and showed up at my home while I was struck with morning sickness. They’re some of my closest friends, and they’re hearing this story for the first time.
“The sun was gone by then,” I’ll continue. “I knew I could keep walking, or I could get back to campus somehow. I ended up convincing some people to give me a ride back to my dorm.”
My friends are very nice, so I know they’ll listen. But I don’t know what they’ll be thinking, so I’ll stare at the black TV screen while I keep talking. To make sure I don’t lose my nerve.
“And I know it was stupid. They said I was being psychotic. I could have fallen in an ice hole. I can’t even swim,” I’ll say. “But I felt like that was one of the most worthwhile things I’ve done with my life.”
I’ll shrug, and nobody will say anything. I’ll tell myself their silence means they’re paying attention. Somebody will shift slightly on the couch, and I’ll imagine for a second that they’re reaching to grab my hand.
“I still feel that way,” I’ll say.
Then I’ll glance down at their faces. I don’t know what I’ll see.
Photo by Julia Cheperis on Unsplash