To Tell or Not To Tell? My dilemma about disclosing my bipolar disorder.

My musings about whether or not to disclose my diagnosis at work.

16 comments

I am writing this post because I am facing a personal dilemma. I am sure many people with a mental health diagnosis has faced this question before – To tell or not to tell? I hate that it’s even a thing. I resent having to labour over this decision because I know that the consequences are so significant. I see and hear people every day talk about “the others” –  those of us with mental health diagnoses that have to be segregated in some way because we are different, we are unknown, unhinged and abnormal.

I could write a novel about all the times I have witnessed stigma in my personal and professional life. Just today, someone I know was talking about a woman who was “a total bitch, out of control, manipulative, nasty, abusive, vindictive, unstable and prone to violence”. A lengthy description of this woman’s winning qualities was followed with “we think she’s bipolar”. She’s bipolar. As if that label defined her entire being, as if it explained all the unacceptable and antisocial behaviour that had preceded it.

As a supervisor in child protection, I hear stories every day about parents who both deliberately and inadvertently abuse and neglect their children. I listen to workers who simply shrug and say “mental health” which is followed by collective nods and eye rolls that say “ah yes, well that explains it”. Last week a worker told me that her concerns for a child at risk had increased tenfold because she discovered that his parent was taking lithium and zoloft (a mood stabiliser and antidepressant). Simply being on psychiatric drugs was cause for alarm as if that somehow indicated that the parent would be unable to care for their child. In today’s world of the internet and easy access to mental health information, this kind of ignorance stuns me. A client’s mental health issues are always exclusively viewed in negative terms and are often seen as an insurmountable problem. No matter how much training our workers do in mental health, they invariably come running to me throwing their hands up in exasperation, “I just don’t know how to help this person”.

This “us and them” mentality segregates us. Ignorance vilifies us. Stigma shames us. Most people in my life don’t know I have bipolar. I think there could be a lot of power in stepping forward now and identifying myself as someone with bipolar. I have earned my colleagues’ respect and friendship and I have earned my promotion. I smile to think of the looks on their faces when they hear me say “I have bipolar”. I don’t think this because I want attention or a reaction, rather, I get satisfaction thinking about blowing their prejudices into oblivion. I want to make them question all their presumptions, I want them to think twice before they paint us all with the same brush as if we aren’t individuals with strengths, ambitions, intelligence, insight and power. I want them to look at their clients with mental health issues and I want them to see a person behind the diagnosis, despite the label and beyond their prejudices. I want them to feel hope and to recognise that we are all human with strengths and weaknesses.

That’s the idealised version of what could happen. The alternative possibility is that their prejudices are so ingrained and prolific that rather than seeing me as I have always been, they might instead see a different person standing before them. They may feel that I have tricked them. They may start interpreting my normal behaviour in terms of symptoms – something that is commonplace when you have a label of bipolar. A bad day becomes a sign of impending depression, an irate comment becomes a sign of irrational anger, a social jaunt or an expensive purchase becomes a sign of mania. My judgement, my decisions, my rationality could be questioned. My integrity, my authority, my fucking sanity could be questioned. This possible reality is so unfair and infuriating that I cannot stand it.

“I care about you and I don’t want you to be a martyr”.

One trusted colleague at work knows about my diagnosis. I respect her opinion and judgement. I asked her what she thought about sharing my diagnosis with everyone in the workplace so that I could draw on my lived experience and provide a compelling blend of professional and personal advice about mental health to the people I supervise. She said, “I care about you and I don’t want you to be a martyr”. A martyr. This was such a powerful statement that really shocked me. Is that what I have to face in order to help overcome stigma and to educate people about mental health? I have to sacrifice myself? Sacrifice my career? Her words stemmed from kindness and genuine concern but she only fueled my passion and fury.

But that’s not the extent of my dilemma. What about my partner? What if people start thinking that he’s with some crazy woman? What effects will my disclosure have on him? What about my sister? She works for the same organisation as me. What effects will my disclosure have on her? I live in a relatively small country town and in my field of work, everyone knows everyone. What if I lose the trust of my professional networks or jeopardise future job opportunities?

So what do I do?

Do I stand up and stand proud and hope that I can help to dismantle stigma? Do I keep hiding behind my shiny, professional, untarnished persona? Do I risk having my every mood and decision questioned? Do I keep up the facade? Do I have some kind of duty to step forward and to speak out as someone who is educated, strong, high functioning and with some level of influence? Will I be a martyr? Are my worries overly dramatic? Am I being selfish? Once the truth is out, there is no going back. The seemingly monumental impact of my disclosure looms over me and makes my head spin with possibilities both good and bad.

For now, I will keep thinking about my decision and talking to people I trust. I am interested in other peoples’ experiences and opinions about this if you would like to leave a comment. Have you disclosed your diagnosis and what was the outcome? Maybe someone will have the magic words to help me make up my mind.

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Image by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

 

16 comments on “To Tell or Not To Tell? My dilemma about disclosing my bipolar disorder.”

  1. Since fairly early on I’ve chosen to be open about my illness (depression) because for me it was an important way of challenging stigma. I have gotten comments along the way similar to the martyrdom comment you got, but staying silent just didn’t feel right for me personally. I have gotten mostly supportive reactions with a significant exception: managers at work have been very unsupportive, but I think that says more about them than it does about me.

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    1. Hi. Thanks for the invite, I read your post and you have a great idea to help raise awareness and reduce stigma! I have posted my link there. All the best getting the word out! xx

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  2. Here I go….I am one of those people who do not give a bleep about what others think of me. Sometimes I wish I did because I do think society judges women to be quiet, prim, and proper, and that isn’t me. I think when you feel the time is right, you will tell your story (and not just on a blog). Mariah Carey (who I absolutely love) has just announced to the world that she has been diagnosed as having Bipolar 2 (I think) and she was diagnosed in 2001 but she explained that she was too embarrassed to let anyone know because she was afraid people would look at her differently and she thought she would lose fans and no one would want to work with her again because the word bipolar has such a stigma attached to it. I know you are worried about what people will think of your sister or you personally. I think you will know when the time is right to let everyone know. However, your coworkers or anyone else really dont need to know everything about your life. Interesting blog…..I just started following your blogs 🙂

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    1. Hey Christina, I appreciate the comment and follow! That’s a great reminder – that I will know when the time is right – because I am a big believer in ‘everything happens at the right time’. I didn’t know about Mariah! That’s fantastic that she’s told people. Thanks for sharing xx

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      1. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Every person’s situation is unique, and I guess I let my own frustrations get the better of me here. If you feel that your co-workers can be trusful and understanding then you should probably go for it. I don’t think it’s a good idea to do it just to prove a point though. The thing is, the few people I told either treated me like chinaware or avoided me like the plague thereafter… But everyone’s story is different…

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      2. Hey thanks for elaborating on your thoughts, but no apology needed. Yes, unfortunately its a risk and everyone’s outcome will be different I suppose. I have a really great team and if I can’t tell them then I can’t imagine telling any other work team in the future. I definitely don’t want to be treated delicately or avoided…. but I think I’m moving closer to taking that risk. I appreciate you letting me know your experience though xo

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  3. i understand i got diagnosed with bipolor a few years ago and some people i dont want to tell like work i dont want them to judge me etc my partner knows and he is very supportive with me on my good days and my bad days he knows what to say and he doesnt judge me other partners in the past did so i was worried about opening up to him about my past with mental health. i still think there is loads of stigma around any mental health but when people make comments about me having bipolar or when im off on one and they say she must be bipolar or shes having one of her funny turn i just know laugh at them and say so what i have bipolar and i rock it. it makes them uncomfortable instead of me seeming i am. but i hope it all works out for you. 🙂 i have only just started blogging to open up about some of my struggles and it does help. and your blog deffo is really interesting and helpful. 🙂

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    1. Thank you! I’m glad your current partner is understanding 😊 That’s a great way to handle negative comments by standing your ground and owning it! Thanks for sharing your experience 💙

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  4. Hi, I’ve suffered from GAD for years and at first I chose not to tell anyone because I didn’t want to be judged solely based on my mental illness. However, over the course of the years (or as I was getting older), I realised that I didn’t give a fuck what people thought about me and that my GAD was part of who I was, whether I liked it or not. Whether *they* liked it or not.

    This has helped me in many ways: I don’t have to hide a part of me that’s always there and I don’t have to play a role, colleagues get to know the real me, and some of them have even opened up and talked to me about their mental health or the mental health of someone they love.

    I’m aware that GAD is more common and less stigmatised than BPD and that’s it’s probably easier to live with on the daily.

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    1. That’s positive to hear, thanks for sharing! I’m starting to feel more and more like it would be easier to be my authentic self, like you are. And each MH condition has its own challenges so I’m sure your experiences have been equally tough. 💖 Thank you xx

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