Having to tell somebody that I have bipolar disorder drives my stress level up a few notches — but I do it anyway. I have taken on the responsibility to talk about it and do my part in fighting the stigma against mental illness. The challenge is talking about it in a positive and motivating way, without feeling like I am complaining about it or painting myself as a victim. I am not a victim — I am still here fighting every day. But bringing up bipolar disorder as if I am talking about any old average subject matter is difficult, to say the least. So, I have found a way to draw on my strengths to help me. I absolutely excel at setting up rules, expectations and systems, and figured I can pretty much apply that to anything — even to talking about bipolar disorder.
Rule #1. Don’t blurt it out. I always want people to immediately understand bipolar as I do, and it is frustrating. How do you explain something so immense, and intricate, in a couple of minutes of causal conversation? I just want to get from point A to point B, quickly. But I have found that saying “hello, my name is Sean, and I have bipolar disorder,” isn’t the most effective way to set the groundwork for any type of relationship. And I can’t really blame that on stigma. I try to imagine anybody introducing themselves as their illness or disorder. Whether that be cancer or diabetes or dyslexia. In my personal experience, it stunts the potential of really letting somebody get to know me, not just my illness.
Rule #2. Find the best time. While the goal is to start conversations as often as possible about fighting the stigma around mental illness, I know that the topic duly deserves the best platform for effective conversations. It is not that I am tiptoeing around the subject, but it just makes sense to wait for the right time, just like any other big topic. That could mean I lead a general conversation in a group of people on self-care to get the ball rolling; or maybe it’s a good time when somebody else brings up a serious health issue that affects their lives; or maybe when the topic within a group is about discrimination. If it can add something to a conversation within a group right out of the gates, great! And when it comes to one-on-one relationships, I find that it is best left to a third or fourth meet up when the relationship has begun to evolve to a deeper level.
Rule #3. Tailor the conversation. BC2M’s new PSA is all about how to talk to somebody about your mental illness. And I was so excited to incorporate their ideas into my plan on how to talk about having bipolar disorder with new friends. It isn’t only about finding the right timing, but the right way to explain it. For example, I made a new friend recently, and we have a lot in common. By the second time we hung out, she openly referred to what makes her unique in relation to her having ADHD and severe anxiety. I thought it was an amazing way to talk about it! By being so open, I was put at ease, and I was able to tailor the conversation and share how bipolar affects my life and the challenges I have in fighting the stigma against it. Having this bond, we are now able to share ideas about how to navigate through our daily lives, and use this electrifying charge to openly talk about our illnesses to other people, unabashedly.
When it actually comes to how to explain bipolar, BC2M provides a great starter, which I have tailored to how I feel I can best explain it:
Imagine the absolute best day of your life. Now imagine the very worst day of your life. Now imagine a single day starting as that best day of your life, naturally optimistic and energized by the pure adrenaline of the amazing feeling — but so happy and energetic that it is eerily, and almost uncomfortably, surreal. That same day, around midday, your euphoria and energy begin to drop quickly. You’re familiar with the feeling: your best day ever is turning into the very worst day of your life — and you can’t do anything about it.
From that point on, the anxiety from knowing what is coming is paralyzing. Your high energy is still there, but in the form of paranoia and dysphoria. It is hard for your mind and body to grasp that just a few hours before it was the best day of your life, but you are staring straight down the barrel at the worst possible day of your life. By nightfall, all forms of energy are drawn away from you. At this point, you are not sure if you welcome sleep to escape the pain and debilitating depression — or if staying awake is the only way to avoid the day happening all over again tomorrow.
Now imagine that most of your life feels like that day — lightly bouncing between be constantly paralyzed by the hope that the morning feeling comes back, and at the same time, plagued by a constant underlying fear of that nighttime depression that could be right around the corner. And you know that there will be waves of those highs and lows taking over for hours, days, or even weeks at a time — without notice. To me, there is nothing more terrifying than this internal threat. It makes external threats manageable and even desirable. That is how I explain my bipolar disorder.