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Recognizing So-Called 'Compliments' When You Live With Bipolar

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I have heard this so-called “compliment” many times over the years, and while I would like to be able to take it as such, it actually cuts deep. People will say to me, in various ways, “You are too smart to be bipolar.” This is a harsh sentence for more than one reason.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

First, the sentence implies that an individual cannot be intelligent and have a mental illness at the same time. That is utter and complete nonsense. I wish people understood that mental illness does not make us unintelligent. That is a farce and totally unfounded. That is antiquated thinking, and I would really like people to understand it is absolutely not the case. One does not go hand-in-hand with the other.

I have bipolar 1 disorder, ADHD and depression. I also wore five academic medals around my neck when I graduated college a few years ago, and was president of the International Honor Society, Phi Theta Kappa. I am immensely proud of my academic achievements and refuse to allow my mental health challenges to discount them in any way.

Maybe I am just touchy about the subject, or maybe it’s because stigma is my soapbox issue. Assuming that someone with mental illness is less intelligent than you are is absurd and that way of thinking needs to be done away with. It is stigma. I have learned over the years the best way to fight stigma is to put a face on it. I am putting my face on this one. I am doing so by talking about it and raising awareness to it. Please, please, educate yourselves and know that some of the most brilliant minds in the world are also the faces of mental illness; Hemingway, Churchill, Dickens, Lincoln, Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Tolstoy. When we think of these people, would we have said to them, “You are too smart to be mentally ill”? I think not.

The other cruelty in that “compliment” is the way it is worded; it labels me. I am not bipolar. I have bipolar. Labels are for jars, not people. You would not say to someone with an illness, “You are cancer” or “You are leukemia,” would you? Then why do you call someone bipolar or schizophrenic? It is an awful feeling to be labeled like an inanimate object with no human qualities. It takes away the person and in place puts the disorder at the root of the sentence. It is cold and unkind.

I would much rather have someone pay me a compliment that simply says, “You are really smart,” and forget about my mental health challenges; they are unrelated. You do not need to tack on the baggage. I would be a much happier person having been given that simple remark. And if you would like to address my mental health, then do so properly in a way that shows me respect as an individual. You can say to me, “I would like to ask you about how it is to have bipolar disorder,” or perhaps, “Can you tell me more about how you deal with having bipolar disorder?” Those are much kinder ways to speak about mental illnesses.

I appreciate anyone who takes the time to read this and learn from it. There are many people like me who feel the same way who may not be so bold as to speak up about it. That happens to be what I do. I advocate for others. I am a mental health certified peer specialist. For those of you who may not be familiar, that is someone who has their own mental health challenges who has recovered to the point where they have been through intensive training and taught to help others with their own mental health issues. I am happy to say I am one of those people who loves to get up in the morning and go to work because I love what I do. I truly feel like I found my purpose in life and I am fulfilled by it every day. So, many thanks for reading. I, and lots of others appreciate you doing so.

Getty image by nadia_bormotova

Originally published: January 4, 2021
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