The decision to disclose your diagnosis of bipolar disorder is very difficult. Here is everything you need to know before you go public.
Coming out is hard to do, but it may be the best thing for you. I stayed “closeted” about my mental health condition for over ten years, but my bipolar and the inexplicably unusual behavior that came with it outed me many times. I hoped and prayed that people might think I was having a bad day when I behaved erratically, but that was likely wishful thinking. I started to wonder if “coming out” might actually benefit me. I weighed the pros and cons. The pros won.
Here are some of the pros for me:
Loneliness – Staying in the closet made me lonely. Coming out and no longer being ashamed and embarrassed of my condition allowed me to once again reconnect with people. I could engage with people I knew and also to develop new relationships, especially with those who also have mental illness. I was able to volunteer to help the mental illness community. I surrounded myself with a “safe community” which I knew wouldn’t stigmatize me.
Proud of who I am – I wanted to show people that I was proud of who I was. Even if bipolar was part of me, it was not all of me. I refused to let my mental illness define me as I had done for so many years. Coming out actually made me stronger. It was empowering to take control of my illness and life. I also grew to appreciate how empathetic and compassionate our community is.
Stop living a lie – I was tired of pretending to friends and family that I was well when I wasn’t. I wanted them to better understand mental illness. By being honest I could promote greater understanding of mental illness.
Need to apologize – I wanted to apologize to the people that I had hurt while ill. My bipolar caused me to hurt people unintentionally by my words and actions. I wanted to apologize, I wanted to relieve myself of the burden of guilt I carried for so long. I wanted people to understand that my actions were not intentional. Most were compassionate and our friendships grew stronger.
Support network – I wanted to grow my support network. Staying in the closet cut me off from a lot of my friends. I wanted to reconnect with them honestly and genuinely. I wanted them to know all of me, the real me. Coming out also allowed me to make people with mental illness part of my support network. That was very helpful because we could relate with each other’s experiences. Also, some of the friends I came out to also shared that they suffered with mental illness. It made me feel less alone.
Support network for supporters – I wanted my supporters to also grow their own support network. For a long time I forbid my mother and father from ever telling anyone I had mental illness. That cut my mom off from sharing those caregiver experiences with others. In doing so, she could not get the support she also needed. I gave my mom permission to disclose my mental illness to her close friends and in doing so she was able to receive more support. Supporters need support too.
Rejoining the family – I missed too many family get togethers, because of my bipolar. I was afraid that people could tell just by looking at me that something was “wrong with me”. I was afraid I might ruin the festive event we had gathered for. I was afraid that I might embarrass my mom and dad. I wanted my family dinners/holidays/reunions back and I was tired of “fake smiling” when I attended or being “sick with a cold” at home when I wasn’t up to attending.
Setting an example for others – And perhaps most importantly, I wanted to set an example for other people living with mental illness. I hoped to encourage others not to be embarrassed and ashamed as I had been for so long. I wanted to show them that recovery was possible and to hopefully inspire hope. Over time, as I developed ForLikeMinds(www.forlikeminds.com), I recognized increasingly the opportunity to educate people about mental illness.
Inspirational examples helped motivate me to come out
I was really inspired by the LGBTQ+ coming out stories. Their courage and bravery in both coming out and facing the risks to their mental health were motivating. I have heard of many people who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community experiencing depression and anxiety over the coming out process. I love that the LGBTQ+ community has a “coming out day” – when they harness their collective courage to support members coming out with the support of the community. This act of unification really inspired me. I wish the mental illness community had its own coming out day.
I was also of course inspired by the examples of other people living with mental illness who also decided to come out. It is invaluable to know that others have done so successfully and that they were so much better off for it. Their example made me feel that my own coming out would work out.
Who to come out to first:
Close friends – they can support you when you come out to others. If your close friends are truly close friends, you shouldn’t lose them. I didn’t lose mine.
Other friends – expect to lose some, and if you do they’re now worth keeping. I love that Dr. Seuss quote: “those who care don’t matter, those who don’t care matter”.
Relatives – you may want your parents or other close family to share the news with your other relatives. We may actually care about what these relatives think. If they react with insensitivity or worse with negativity, we may actually be hurt by their reaction so your parents or close family can serve as a buffer.
Social colleagues, casual acquaintances– I didn’t come out them at first, but they may be a good source of support for you.
Work colleagues – This is possibly the riskiest group to come out to. Employers may ignorantly fear that people with mental illness are less productive, have diminished mental capacity, may request special accommodations, may need more time off. I have my own business and disclosing my mental illness is essential to my mission. But you should be very careful about doing so.
How to “come out”:
There are many ways to come out – slowly and quietly or you can make it a celebration. I hated the thought of coming out to people one-by-one, except for my very close friends and explaining what bipolar was, so I decided to come out to everyone else at once. Initially, I started a mental illness related petition. I posted it on my Facebook page and encouraged people to sign it. The petition included a short bio of myself and why I started the petition including my condition. In the Facebook post, I also included a link to Diana Ross’ Coming Out classic. About five years later I came out more formerly with a video of my recovery journey. I was overwhelmed by the touching and encouraging feedback I received. Several people posted very supportive comments. Not one single person on my Facebook page said anything at all negative. It made me very happy, surprised me, and greatly comforted me.
How much to disclose
You don’t have to disclose every single detail of your experience. Disclose only what you’re comfortable disclosing and don’t be afraid to tell people that you don’t feel like talking about it in more detail. Reliving past experiences can be triggering for some people. Many people don’t know people with mental illness who have disclosed their illness so they may be curious about your experiences. So if they ask about your condition, they are not necessarily trying to pry or intentionally trying to make you feel uncomfortable.
Coming out with mental illness requires you to be thick -skinned. You may be subject to more stigma, you may develop higher sensitivity to stigma in the short term. People in your life may treat you differently. They may also gossip about you. People may exclude you from social gatherings. They may also feel awkward about what to say to you. Mental illness is a difficult topic for many people. Some people may pity you.
Your immediate family may get upset with you for being so open about your condition. Unfortunately, stigma not only impacts people with mental illness, but also their supporters. Even worse, your immediate family may have stigmatizing views towards you as well. Your parents may fear that they may be judged by others, be accused of being bad parents. Most importantly, once you’re out you’re out. You can’t take it back. You may regret the decision for some time. So make sure you carefully consider it and are prepared. Even more importantly, always be proud of who you are.
Over time, your coming out should cause friends, family, and
others around you to see the realities and possibilities of mental illness. We
hope as so many of us know, that people realize that people with mental illness
are no different than anyone else, that while bipolar may be part of us it is
not all of us. It’s a serious ailment like many others that many others
experience. People may admire you for your courage and bravery, the hope and
inspiration you share with others. They will see the real you. Your example
should serve as a powerful tool against stigma. Over time, people will have to refuse
the common stigmas based on your courageous example.
Katherine Ponte, BA, JD, MBA, NYCPS-P, CPRP, is a Mental Health Advocate and Entrepreneur and lawyer. She is the founder of ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness. You may follow ForLikeMinds on Facebook. She is on the NAMI New York City Board of Directors. She has also been living with severe Bipolar I Disorder for over 15 years and is currently living in recovery.
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