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When It Feels Like Bipolar Robbed You of Your Potential

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I was supposed to be this genius. Everyone knew it. My parents encouraged it. My teachers loved me. I learned to read without ever being taught. I picked up foreign languages quickly. In school, I was assigned independent reading and math assignments. I was put up a grade.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

My parents tried to find an academically challenging program for me but couldn’t afford private school. Instead, I skated through my classes, earning good grades automatically. No one pushed me to do better because I didn’t seem to need pushing.


By my teen years, my bipolar disorder had well and truly kicked in. I laughed aloud in class at things no one else found funny. I had crying jags and a nervous twitch in my neck (which was treated with a sedative). I isolated from all but a few friends. I hid behind books, literally and figuratively. I explored colleges pretty much at random. No one guided my education. I ended up, largely by chance, at an Ivy League school.


By then, my bipolar disorder, undiagnosed and untreated, took over my life. Again I skated through, taking whatever classes appealed to me, without regard to my future. I spent a lot of time crying, isolating and missing out on a lot of opportunities, both academic and extracurricular.

By the time I graduated, I was in such bad shape that all I was looking for was a job I could work long enough to qualify for disability when I was finally put away. That’s how far down the bipolar rabbit hole I’d gone.

Still, I had that Ivy League degree, a not-very-marketable major and a reason to look for work. I took on jobs doing inventory, cashiering at a restaurant and answering phones at an advertising agency.

Where was this genius I was supposed to have been? Whatever happened to all my great potential?

Bipolar disorder robbed me of my great potential. Bipolar disorder stole my chance at being a genius. It screwed up my thought processes as well as my emotions and my stability.

I was, however, fortunate enough — or smart enough — to get psychological help and, in time, made strides in coping with Life While Bipolar. I adjusted to the fact that my lost opportunities meant that I would never fulfill that potential that seemed so apparent when I was a child.

In a way, I have some version of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is when you feel that, no matter how much you have accomplished, you are a fraud and that someone will notice and denounce you. Fame, talent, success, love — all are illusory and undeserved. In my case, I feel that whatever I’ve accomplished is not enough, certainly not enough to live up to the great potential everyone including me thought I had. Surely someone will notice and say, “You’re not that great. You’re certainly no genius. What have you ever done with your life?” It’s my lack of success that I’m afraid people will notice and comment on.

However, as a friend of mine has said, “The ultimate remedy for imposter syndrome is knowing that they grade on a curve.” Most of us fit in the fat middle of that bell curve. Few of us are on either of the thin ends. So I’m not exactly where I “should” be on that curve. So people guess at where I am and guess wrong. That has no real effect on me.

And in objective terms, I’ve done pretty well. I have a stable, loving marriage and a relatively stable mental condition. I’ve edited magazines and written two books. My bipolar disorder is in remission. Sure, I seldom get a chance to show off my knowledge of contemporary poetry, but that doesn’t affect my moods and nobody quizzes me about it.

I’m bipolar and not a genius. I make my way through as best I can. I am who I am. And that’s OK. I can accept where I am without feeling the need to be something more.

Photo by Meghan Holmes on Unsplash

Originally published: February 1, 2020
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