Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, I “came out” as having bipolar disorder. I wrote a piece for The Pool called “I want to talk about my bipolar disorder”, in which I likened mania and depression to Alice’s Wonderland.
“It’s a vortex,” I wrote, “an alternate universe, a trip, a mad world where everything and nothing is possible at once. Depression is a freefall down a dark rabbit hole that feels as though it may never end and, if it does, what’s there to catch you but hard ground? Mania is the suspension of reality, the bread-and-butterflies and singing flowers, the poetic reptiles and verbose caterpillars. It’s a dream-like state without perspective, rationality or control. Staying too long there is roughly the equivalent of following a cat with a vanishing smile into a forest at night – dangerous and confusing.”
It was the first time I’d written or spoken about my mental health publicly. I’d told friends over the years; I’d told university lecturers and school teachers. But I hadn’t, as a journalist, put the words into the world. I’ve always known the value of a personal story, so I felt that I couldn’t very well hold on to mine. Besides which, it was important to me to live without shame. I spend hours and column inches defending the rights of people with mental illness to live proudly and without stigma. I have to live that.
A year of living honestly as someone with bipolar disorder has changed the way I feel about myself. For a start, I feel free. It was a cathartic thing to do, to make something so private, public. It feels right and it feels nice, not to hold on to a secret like that any more. I also feel proud. I’d lived with bipolar disorder for a decade by then – it’s 11 years now – and I know it’s part of who I am. If someone offered to take away my bipolar disorder, I don’t know what I would do. Who am I, without it? I’ve spent so long integrating it into my being and understanding it, so that I might defeat it, that I no longer know how I’d be without it. And that’s OK. I own that. My ability to see the extremes of human emotion has given me extreme empathy and it’s given me the capacity to be there for people through hellish circumstances. I know what it’s like to wish you could stop existing and I know what it’s like to feel as though you’re existing like nobody else has existed before – that gives me insight into the human condition that I genuinely value. It’s a strange rebellion, learning to value the illness you’ve been wrestling with for so many years. Admitting that publicly is important to me. How often do we talk about the horrors of mental illness? How many times do we demonise people who live with it? I’d like to make the conversation a little more nuanced than that.
The truth, I think, is that it’s very hard for people to criticise you for something when you’ve so obviously accepted it yourself
The main thing I’ve learnt since writing about bipolar disorder is that you can survive the candour. I was always frightened that I wouldn’t be employable or loveable because of what I have; that if people found out, they’d change their opinions of me or treat me differently. But that really hasn’t happened. All my friends read my piece and got in touch with beautiful messages of support and love. People I hadn’t spoken to in many years let me know they’d read it and admired my courage. Bosses and clients of mine read it online and I still get work from them. My new (lovely) boyfriend knew about my mental illness before we started dating and he likes me anyway. The truth, I think, is that it’s very hard for people to criticise you for something when you’ve so obviously accepted it yourself. That, and mental illness is so common that most people already know and love someone who struggles with it. Not to mention the fact that mental illness is like any other sort of medical condition: nobody chooses it and all we can do is try our best to survive. I know what tenacity and courage it takes to do that, so I respect anyone who does. I respect myself.
Since “coming out” as bipolar, I’ve not been abandoned, judged, abused, mocked or underestimated because of my condition. I’m not lonely or alone, now that the majority of people in my life know about it. I don’t feel bruised or exposed or vulnerable. If anything, I feel stronger for it. I’m not frightened of what people think any more. I know what they think – and I like it.