Hiding In Plain Sight

By: Aubrey Good

I am an intern at the International Bipolar Foundation. I spend a few hours a week at the office finding articles, writers, resources, etc. that I believe are beneficial to educating the public on bipolar disorder and also offer hope and understanding. I offer pieces on how to fight the stigma on mental health- suggestions such as, “be brave and tell your story” or “speak to your employer about your mental health needs”… so on and so forth. I spend hours looking for material that is able to represent all facets of bipolar disorder and is relatable to a multitude of people. Most recently, I have poured my energy into breaking into communities that have a stubborn aversion to seeking mental healthcare.

I can honestly say that I love this internship; if you asked me a couple of weeks ago, I’d have even thrown in the word “easy” into the list of reasons why. It felt “easy” for me to fulfill these duties until the day an interaction caused me to realize in bold, capital letters:

“I am an intern at the International Bipolar Foundation and I am a HYPOCRITE.”

A couple of weeks ago, I had stopped in the lobby to listen to another woman briefly describe her diagnosis of bipolar II disorder. She turned to me and began to thank me for volunteering for the bipolar community. I can’t remember her exact words because my body stiffened and shame rendered me frozen. The only response I had to offer this woman was a lousy, “you’re welcome”, before I ran back to my desk.

At face value, it doesn’t look as though anything shameful occurred for me to have such an adverse reaction. However, it was the first time I have ever been faced head-on with “self-stigma” in a conversation with another person. The appropriate response wasn’t a “you’re welcome”. It should have been:

“You aren’t alone. I volunteer here because I too suffer from bipolar disorder”.

I have spent a very long time replaying this conversation in my head (cue obsessive thinking!) and wondering what caused me to hide my truth from an understanding listener. It’s not that I’ve never told anyone about the disorder- it’s just that the majority of my interactions with it resulted in negative responses such as:

-“Interesting. I think [insert name here] might be too. They are super moody.”

-“Oh, that makes sense! [Insert any and every event] must be when you were having episodes, right?”

Or my personal favorite- “Really? You don’t seem bipolar. I haven’t seen you [insert emotional state].”

And so, it is a combination of always being afraid someone will invalidate me if I’m honest about my bipolar disorder, always being viewed through the lens of mental illness, and getting confused between being “high-functioning” and not actually needing help that has caused me to stay silent for a long time.

I’m exhausted.

I’m exhausted from trying my best not to allow my disorder to show itself.

I’m exhausted from having to make excuse after excuse for why certain things are happening because I don’t just admit to having an illness.

I’m exhausted from trying to navigate life medicated from how I lived unmedicated.

I’m exhausted from trying to understand where the disorder ends and my true personality begins.

I’m exhausted from wishing I could be “normal”.

I’m exhausted from feeling embarrassed of so many moments in my life where I hurt myself or others.

And I’m exhausted because in the lack of attention given to “high-functioning” bipolar disorder or anything other than extreme cases, I’m made to doubt myself and feel like I have to stay hidden because there is no understanding or acceptance for the condition.

It is after recently spending a night in the hospital because mounting internalized anxiety was causing me chest pains and trouble breathing that I decided I can’t live like this anymore. It is unhealthy for me to continue lying to cover up a condition I did not choose, and it is unhealthy for society to continue to be ignorant of the many faces that bipolar disorder has.

I can’t change the conversation I had a few weeks ago anymore than I can change having bipolar disorder. But I can change the future dialogue, and it will confidently end like this next time:

“I am an intern and the International Bipolar Foundation and it is important to me because I have bipolar disorder.”

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