I have bipolar disorder. I also have a career. Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. It’s important to take care of myself, but I also need to work. Should I practice self-care and stigma-busting by disclosing my mental illness to my coworkers and, most importantly, my employer? Or should I play it safe and keep my diagnosis hidden? I’ve been struggling with this question for fourteen years, ever since I started working as a freelancer in the film industry. I’m still not sure I have an answer.
I just turned 45!
I have mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, I’m happy that I’m healthy (both physically and mentally), stable (bipolar disorder-wise), and I have a wonderful life. I have a fantastic, sensitive, caring boyfriend who I just celebrated my 5-year anniversary with in December. My mom is alive, healthy, and lives nearby (we’re even getting coffee tomorrow). I have amazing friends who are supportive. And I not only have a career I love, but I’m also writing a memoir that I think I’ll be very proud of once it gets published (or even if it doesn’t, because just writing it is meaningful to me).
But of course, 45 is also a scary sounding age to me. I’m getting older.
Be yourself. That’s a pretty universal piece of advice. Whether you’re applying for a job or going on a first date, it’s something we’ve all heard at one time or another. When everyone can see the real you, the relationships you build are authentic. But because I have bipolar disorder, I have a hard time even knowing who “the real me” is. Am I the bubbly, energetic go-getter who’s the life of the party? Am I the sensitive, introspective person who sometimes cries too often? Or are those behaviors expressions of my bipolar disorder?
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been outgoing. I was the kid who made friends with everyone. By the time I was 11 years old, my parents and teachers noticed my seemingly endless energy and my inability to sit still. I could be disruptive to class and exhausting to my parents. In my twenties, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. So was I just an energetic kid? Or was I hypomanic?
For those of us who have bipolar disorder, second-guessing your true nature comes with the territory. I don’t always recognize the person staring back at me when I look in the mirror. I was 22 the first time I took the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator. I came out on the extreme end of ENFJ, with an emphasis on the “E” for extrovert. Does the big “E” mean I’m really an extrovert, or is that my hypomania? Hypomania can be subtle. It can look to everyone (and sometimes even me) that I’m just someone with a lot of friends who loves to participate in social activities. But that’s also what an extrovert is. Sometimes it’s difficult to detangle my authentic self from all these labels.
Someone once asked me if I could get rid of my bipolar disorder, would I? My answer was no. No matter what I’ve been through, or how I’ve gotten to where I am now—whether it’s my bipolar disorder or my personality—I’m happy with who I am. Does that mean I ignore my illness and don’t take care of myself? Of course not. I recognize that I have a lifelong illness that needs lifelong care, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. I take my medication; visit the doctor regularly; get enough sleep, food and exercise; and try to keep things in perspective. I surround myself with a strong support network of friends and family who can tell me if they see me start to go off the rails.
Sometimes I feel like people only love me when I’m hypomanic.
And it’s hard for them to love me when i’m depressed.
When I’m hypomanic, I’m:
An incredible extrovert
But when I’m depressed, all of the above is either terribly muffled, or else completely gone.