Onward and Upward

I didn't exactly choose to be candid about my mental illness; I was dragged to it kicking and screaming. In late 2012, I began to spiral downward so much that my problems were beginning to bleed into both my personal and professional lives. The spillover was accelerated when a well-meaning but misguided acquaintance spilled the beans to much of my social circle. I had spent the last two decades trying to put on a good face and to minimize my problems. Now the secret was out in a big way, and I was forced to embrace this core aspect of who I was—a woman suffering from bipolar II disorder.

I was lucky that soon after I began to fall apart, I started to receive proper treatment. I started showing symptoms of depression and anxiety when I was very young, but it was only until I reached the age of thirty that I finally found relief. I had been shuffled from doctor to doctor, all of them operating under the belief that I was suffering from treatment resistant depression. After trying every form of talk therapy and antidepressant invented, I was beginning to lose hope. I even had one psychiatrist tell me my only hope was a course of— rarely prescribed but apparently still used—electroshock therapy. It was only until I found a doctor who recognized my impulsive habits of spontaneously planned trips and pricey shopping sprees that it was finally determined that I was bipolar.

Finding proper treatment was the key to being able to cast off the shame of being mentally ill. It’s a lot easier to stop thinking of my condition as a shameful secret now that I’m no longer in constant battle not to go off the deep end. I became capable of taking inventory of what was good about myself and my life, rather than spending every day feeling defective.

I’m also lucky enough to work in a field where people tend to be more empathetic and accommodating of mental health issues. When you’re mentally ill, there’s a huge pressure to put on a good face and soldier through whatever problems one may be facing. Nobody wants to be perceived as crazy, unstable, unpredictable. When I was starting my career, I would often lie and blame my depressive and manic episodes on physical conditions. Taking a medical day because I was depressed to the point of vomiting would be seen as irresponsible; calling out because of a cold or bout of food poisoning was a safer option.

Another benefit to my career is the amount of travel I’m able to do. Whether I’m just wandering around my own city or one overseas, speaking at conferences or on a personal trip, I’ve utilized my ability to travel to push the boundaries of what I considered myself capable of. Three years ago, I would have never imagined venturing outside my own home, much less having dinner by myself in an alien city. I was emboldened to do more. I pursued hobbies I would have never before thought to try, such as blacksmithing, flying lessons, and sailing. I dutifully continue to add to my list of “yes, I am bipolar, but I’ve also managed to live a pretty damned awesome life.”

The fact that I’m bipolar is now just a part of who I am, the same as having brown eyes and being short. I no longer feel ashamed for having a bad day, just as I don’t feel embarrassed for being unable to reach a top shelf at the grocery store. I doubt I’ll ever be proud of being mentally ill. But I’ve certainly stopped making apologies for it.