Bipolar Disorder, Stigma and Suicide

Author: Valéry Brosseau 

The gym smelled a bit like a warehouse would smell, but mostly like sweat. I came to this gym 5 times a week to practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu but tonight I was not feeling it. I struggled through the warm up. My anxiety was making me irritable and my depressive mood was killing my motivation and concentration.

Finally it was time to spar, or roll as we call it in this sport. I looked around for a partner for the first round and saw that most of the men I was friends with were already partnered up. I realized I would have to pair up with a black belt I did not particular like. He was usually crass and had a history of making women in the gym feel uncomfortable.

BJJ is done in a kimono-like uniform called a gi and the gi is crucial because we grab the fabric in different grips to help us achieve and maintain positions. As he grabbed a sleeve grip, my gi sleeve rode up my arm. He looked down at the scars that run lengthwise up and down my wrist and without seeming to give it a thought, he asked “What…..d’you try to kill yourself or something?”

“Not tonight. This is so not what I needed tonight,” I thought as I hung my head.

In that moment all the memories of having strangers stare at me on buses, having nurses give me a pitying look when they drew blood, of having children ask me how this happened, came flying back. I did not want to hide anymore. I did not want to diminish or belittle the war I had endured to get to where I am today. No way. I didn’t fight this battle to be ashamed of it.

I looked at him and, calmly, I said; “Yes.”

I could see the shock on his face. I could see all the gears turning in his head as he realized how gauche his question was. I could see his surprise at receiving an honest answer. That’s because we don’t discuss suicide.

I’ve often had people stare at my scars. They’re most often too shy or too afraid to ask about them but they’re curious. They kind of don’t want to know but they kind of do want to know. But most often they don’t ask. I wear my insides carved into my outside. The ugliest parts of me are on display.

But what I experience, the highs and lows of bipolar disorder, those don’t show up on my skin. And because we can’t see mental illness, we refuse to acknowledge it. When confronted with it, we’re awkward, we shy away, we lack compassion. It’s perceived as a choice, a failure, anything but a medical condition

This is stigma.

Stigma silences us. It stops us from speaking up. It stunts discussion and creates discomfort and judgement. Stigma is insidious. It creeps in as we form more and more opinions and misconceptions and eventually grows into something much more harmful.

Because of stigma, I spent years hiding my illness, hiding the pain. I refused to share the full truth of what I was experiencing.

My bipolar depression routinely comes with suicidal thoughts and ideations. The last time I tried to kill myself I needed 14 stitches. The time before that I was in a coma for days.

I can now say this openly. When it comes to my mental health and my mental illness, I’ve learned to be comfortable with vulnerability and honesty. Through my recovery, I’ve learned to be comfortable with sharing my story. I’ve learned that it can be extremely powerful in letting people know they are not alone, and allowing people to see a more human and real side of mental illness. I share my story in the hopes of encouraging people to understand better and to help combat stigma.

I’ve been asked before what I would say if someone offered to wave a magic wand and take away my illnesses and my symptoms. There was a time I would have begged for that. I would have begged to be different, better, normal. But now? That war changed me; the pain molded me.

Recovery is not usually linear. There will be steps forwards and backwards, highs and lows. What matters is that you keep going; that you keep moving forward. I’ve seen how hard I can fight this thing and all I know is I’m going to keep trying. I’m not going to tell you it will be easy, but I will tell you this: it will be worth it. Don’t hope to be different, better or normal. Aim to be healthy. Aim to be yourself. Don’t be ashamed of being atypical; be proud of how far you’ve come.


About Valéry Brosseau 

For years I believe that if I tried harder I could be different, better, normal. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my early 20s and now know there is a name for what I experience and, more importantly, that there is treatment.

Through countless medications, several psych ward stays and a 5-month inpatient program, I learned to manage my symptoms and find hope again. I began volunteering at Distress Centre Durham, in Ontario, Canada, in the hopes of giving positive meaning to my experiences. I learned that my experiences allow me to connect with others, to show them they are not alone, and to provide a more human and real side to mental illness. 

This volunteer work helped me find my passion for mental health advocacy. I am now a writer, public speaker and advocate, offering workshops and delivering talks, keynotes, etc. In 2019 I had the opportunity to do a TEDx talk at McGill University. Despite working in mental health, I continue my volunteer involvement with DCD and I also volunteer as a mental health speaker for middle and high school students.  

Bipolar disorder has not defeated me. I have aimed to live life to the fullest. I have a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a black belt in Karate, I am a scuba instructor, an archaeologist and I have visited 43 countries. And this is just the beginning.


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