This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on 5/26/15.
I feel most comfortable in a classroom. Whether I am the instructor or sitting in a chair soaking up intellectually tantalizing ideas, I love to be surrounded by wisdom and to be immersed in the process of learning. I have received many compliments from teachers and other students about my academic contributions, and it is something that greatly contributes to my identity and sense of self-worth.
I have also been complimented about my appearance — from my natural endowments to my penchant for quirky, retro fashion with a modern twist. Due to both ingrained insecurity about my appearance and an almost neurotic vanity, I delight in these suggestions that I exhibit the type of physical beauty which would inspire such commentary.
Brilliant and beautiful are subjective terms. Both have been used to describe me on several occasions throughout my life, suggesting sufficient evidence for me to accept such claims. But I have also been called air-headed and ugly, among other unsavory things — and I have felt the full range of just about every characteristic in-between.
Perhaps to your surprise and to the dismay of many an objective psychologist, I also believe that bipolar is a subjective term. Bipolar disorder is a mental health diagnosis that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, affects nearly 4 percent of the U.S. adult population at some time in their lives. But as a person who has experienced this specific type of mental illness, I strongly feel that each of us — the more than 5 million Americans (Treatment Advocacy Center) who will struggle with bipolar disorder this year — experiences this emotional disease in our own way that defies simplistic definition.
Bipolar disorder was not my first diagnosis. I have been labeled using at least three very different diagnoses in the past 25 years, and with each came a new host of medication and other treatment. Like the social constructs of brilliant and beautiful, bipolar was attributed to me, or not, differently based on others’ perceptions of me at a particular time in my life. Yet my unique brain chemistry and wiring has not diverged quite to this extent.
Perhaps those perceptions were based on other factors, like my appearance and cognitive ability. The convergence of those attributes, along with my personality and demeanor, may have served as a disguise that masked my true nature. In fact, people are often surprised to learn that I have a diagnosis — and I suspect this is because it hides behind what people immediately recognize and subsequently identify with me. It is also likely due to the fact that I have, intentionally or not, used my strengths to create a specific type of public perception as a survival mechanism to fit in and move forward in my career.
All of this makes getting the right kind of help very difficult. Mental illness still carries with it a huge stigma, and even though I am publishing this to a broad audience I do so with the fear that it might hinder my future professional prospects. Mental illness and professionalism are seen as discrete variables; this is just one manifestation of society’s silly insistence that mental illness is akin to a deficit in character or will — and the fear that it will no doubt lead to unethical or even criminal behavior if it hasn’t already. It is wonderful that bipolar disorder is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but employers, colleagues, and others can easily find another excuse to exclude in order to protect themselves from the potential manifestations to which those fears allude. Even when we finally find the courage to stand up and say, “Here I am, this is me, I need help,” this only invites the judgment of others, who even with the best of intentions may say or do something that is more harmful than helpful. And when we have obvious strengths, when we are “making it,” when we don’t fit those social expectations for a person who is experiencing mental illness, it is difficult to convey how much we are truly suffering, and how much others’ compassion and understanding would mean to us.
It is no wonder that less than half of Americans who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder are receiving treatment (National Institute of Mental Health). There are other challenges, such as expense and accessibility, which are far too complex to fully address here. But a good first step to creating a culture of emotional wellness in our country would be to cast aside our preconceptions and open up to the depth and range of experience and needs that we all have.