Those of us who write about our lives with bipolar have different motivations: enhancing public awareness, sharing information, combating stigma, providing hope and inspiration… While composing my memoir, I’m wondering about what to share and how—intention vs. impact, social value vs. personal risk. And when is it “too much”?
Writing about Bipolar & Being an Open Book
All of the contributors here at bpHope Blog write about their lived experience with bipolar disorder. What we share is intended to provide others—especially those who live with bipolar or love someone who does—with an honest reflection of what it’s like to manage bipolar and the many ways it influences our daily lives. We hope, of course, that our stories and suggestions are not only useful and informative but also supportive and encouraging.
For those of us who write personal memoirs, have personal blogs, and work to advocate and educate about the stresses, strains, and sometimes successes of our bipolar lives, it can often feel like our lives are open books.
I’ve been grappling with some questions about this lately, wondering about the line between disclosure and exposure:
When is revelation too much?
When does sharing cross over to engaging in what is (regrettably) called “trauma porn” or “disability porn”?
At what point do people say, “That couldn’t have really happened; no one would do something like that!”
When do we run the risk of exploiting ourselves—or others—in revealing aspects of our bipolar lives to the public?
The reason I am struggling with these questions at this moment is that I am composing a memoir of the time before I was diagnosed with bipolar, when I was diagnosed, and what the fallout of that diagnosis meant for my life.
Being Honest & Doing No Harm
My working title for this memoir is “Growing Up Mental” (yes, I understand the implications for using that word), and I concentrate on how my problems were misdiagnosed or simply swept under the rug in my family.
I talk a lot about my past in this story and talk about how I was treated by a lot of different people. One aspect to disclosing your story could be the beginning of the Hippocratic Oath—“First, do no harm.”
Following common practice in book publishing, I am using pseudonyms for the players in my story who do not need excessive exposure—my children, my teachers in school, and other peripheral characters. I have used real names when the person in question is deceased, and I have largely used pseudonyms for those who are still living. For the people I went to college with, I use only their first names. And people who were at the center of my bipolar narrative, such as the various men I have nursed obsessions about, I haven’t named at all.
The Question of Self-Censorship
How much to tell? I have told a lot of stories about myself both here and on my personal blog. But in my memoir, I am telling the facts as I know them and sharing incidents that I’ve never revealed to anyone—even my family and closest friends.
Because one of my missions is to give people hope.
Hope that no matter how “messed up” you’ve been, you can crawl out of that place and learn to live with your disorder. You may have to take responsibility for some actions that you’ve done or decisions that you made, perhaps, in the process of sharing or “confessing” them.
But I now have a certain comfort level with those embarrassing details, which I learned only after years of reaching out to those who are so lost.
Your mileage may vary. You may feel that you cannot reveal certain stories for the effect that revelation may have on those nearest and dearest to you. That’s a decision all of us, as people diagnosed with bipolar, have to make for ourselves.
The only people we have to be completely honest with about our bipolar exploits are members of our treatment team—so they can aid us in managing our symptoms.
Mission of Hope vs. Seeking Monetary Gain
If I were just writing my memoir for the potential monetary profit, no amount could convince me to reveal certain parts of my life. But my motivation is different:
I wanted to write a story that people who have middle-school-aged children could give to them and not worry about what they are being exposed to.
And I, again, wanted to give hope to those who are struggling with bipolar disorder and to those who love them—to show them, honestly and openly, that life doesn’t have to be this way. To share that there are therapies, modalities of treatment, and medications that exist to make symptoms treatable and to minimize their impact on one’s daily life.
The Risk of Rabbit Holes When Writing about Bipolar
As I revise, I am constantly finding opportunities to make my circumstances more real, more relatable, and more honest than I have ever been before. Going back into these moments often causes me to feel the same emotions that I did while undergoing the trial or the triumph.
I have, at times, worried that I would get so lost in my story that I would trigger a new mood episode by revisiting and re-experiencing those emotions.
If you are sharing your experiences with bipolar, and you ever find yourself going too far down the rabbit hole of your depressive ruminations or manic thoughts, I think that would be a good signal that it’s time to stop and reevaluate what effect that telling your story is having on you.
No witness, no piece of writing, no testimony is worth literally losing your mind over, yet again.
Some memories may need to stay only between you and (if you so believe) God.
I hope this little essay gives those of you who write about your lived experience with bipolar disorder some encouragement to continue your mission and to self-evaluate when necessary.
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