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5 Things I'm Unlearning About Bipolar Disorder

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I just received an email that both lit me up and concerned me. In it, a colleague expressed how much they appreciate the work I’ve done thus far. They’re looking forward to working on more projects together. It’s clear why that made my day, but I’m thrown off because I don’t view myself the same way. Ever since getting back into the workforce after my bipolar diagnosis, I’ve felt like I’ve always been one step away from losing my job. Not because I’m in any danger of being let go, but because the last time I had a job, l left because of mania.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

My brain was hijacked and everything was a stressful, consuming blur. Every now and then, I get worried I’ll be back in that place. So much embarrassment and shame followed what was a huge disruption of my life, and since then, I’ve worked to keep all I’ve gained. All my family has recovered. All we continue to build and attain.

I reply back to my colleague and thank them. I keep it brief. Classically, I haven’t been good at accepting praise, and I don’t want to burden them with a myriad of reasons of why I’m not as competent or talented as they think I am. At some point, I realize how negative my self-talk is. The truth is — my work has spoken for itself. I’ve been making strides. I am doing well at my job and helping people every day. I smile, inhale and slowly exhale, feeling gratitude for interrupting a shame spiral.

Since receiving my diagnosis and working on my healing, there’s been much I’ve worked to unlearn about bipolar disorder. Early on in my journey, I wrote about misconceptions we carry about about the disease. But, honestly, I’m still unpacking my own ingrained falsehoods. As I dig deeper and question my thoughts with “is this true?” (something I learned from a past therapist), I’m able to regulate my emotions and continue designing the life I get to live.

Here are five lies I’m unlearning about bipolar disorder:

  1. This diagnosis diminishes my professional credibility. Not true. The biggest key factor with being back to working full-time is setting clear and consistent boundaries around my time and energy. A lack of sleep and an unhealthy diet can both set me back. So, I’m careful about not taking work home, removing email from my phone, and leaving work at five o’ clock (plus, I don’t want to be stuck in traffic). I’ve hit some rough spots in the past year, but this didn’t mean I needed to quit the job. I remained honest with my wife and my therapist about my limits, and we worked to regroup and revisit my habits and routines. In some ways, living with this diagnosis has made me even more vigilant of burnout as an employee.
  2. It’s impossible to make new friends who will trust me. False. Though, I’m much more intentional about curating my friend group with people whose values align with mine. I don’t drink anymore because of how that would impact my medications. I’m also wanting more fellow fathers in my life, as raising a Black daughter in this world takes a community. These days I’m befriending people who are comfortable with my diagnosis. They rarely make it the topic of conversation unless I bring it up. What’s more important are all the factors surrounding my health, my family life, my career, and supporting them with their challenges. I’ve found people I can celebrate life with, and I’m still adjusting to the fact that I deserve them in my life.
  3. I have to put my dreams on hold. Wrong again. There was a time when I had a high follower count across platforms, and had contracts coming in left and right. It’s different now, and that’s OK. I’m thankful that I’ve found ways to do the work of ending mental health stigma, and that I’m pacing myself this time around. My wife and I often talk about what we want our future to look like, and it’s just good to be on a team. We get to dream big, and we’re working on our own un/relearning around what success means. Especially, as we enter into spaces our ancestors often were excluded from.
  4. The other shoe will drop and I’ll be right back where I was in 2018. Doesn’t have to be true. I don’t have to have a major episode again. My former psychiatrist told me that, and I’ve been holding onto it. It’s positive and realistic rolled into one, and my habits with taking medication, tracking my mood, and making adjustments to my diet are what keep me stable. I have a strong support system that is OK with holding me accountable and I have an emergency plan in place should things ever start to enter dangerous territory. While the fear of the other shoe dropping is still there, planning has been a great antidote to anxiety.
  5. My diagnosis is an embarrassment. Nope, my diagnosis is a gift. It’s a gift as a father, it’s a gift as a husband, and it’s a gift as a Black man. Before it, I didn’t have answers as to why I was so extra all the time. I didn’t have a name for the hypomania I experienced. But now, I’m informed. I get to use my story to help others unlearn shame and feel less alone.

As you work to unlearn your own false narratives around bipolar disorder, remember to give yourself a break and cut yourself some slack. There are countless reasons for why we stigmatize this illness, what’s important is that we take the little steps of deconstructing those underlying beliefs. The most important truth is that you get to live a full life with a bipolar diagnosis. You do, your friend living with is does, your loved one does, that celebrity does, anyone and everyone. It doesn’t have to define our lives. Rather, it’s something we can continue to explore, learn from, investigate and treat.

There’s more life to be lived.


Photo credit: Joice Kelly/Unsplash

Originally published: September 5, 2021
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