Having insight into your health conditions, prioritizing sleep, and maintaining a responsible relationship with substances is always smart—even more so if you have bipolar.
I received two rejections yesterday, one of which forced me to click on four links and enter a password before I could access my “regret-to-inform-you” letter. I consider it a sign of intense maturity that, at 41 years old, all I did was hurl curses at a screen instead of hurling my laptop across the room.
People think writers are good at rejection, but the truth is we deplore it just as much as anyone else. Even if we say we’re “good” at it, we’re wrong. I used to be one of those delusional writers, boasting a “thick skin,” insisting that the constant rejection didn’t gnaw at my spirit like a festival of rapidly replicating viruses.
Of course, I was lying—to myself and everyone else. All that rejection is crushing. But what prevents me from throwing tantrums and laptops on a daily basis is knowing that I am both not alone and in stellar company. This applies equally, moreover, to my bipolar diagnosis as it does to my profession. Though when it comes to the latter, there’s a lot more publicly available evidence to draw on.
We’ve all heard the stories of famous writers amassing seemingly endless rejections only to have the whole world fall in love with their writing in the end. From Octavia Butler to Marcel Proust, Judy Blume to J. K. Rowling, Beatrix Potter to Alex Haley. We know these stories because once writers reach a certain level of success, they often revel in sharing past disappointments as a means of both celebrating their achievements and making sure the naysayers regret their nays. It’s almost a rite of passage.
But for successful people with bipolar disorder, there’s a different rite of passage: silence. One of the greatest gifts of being so public about my condition has been hearing from others living with bipolar who are wildly successful, but who would never publicly disclose their mental health struggles or triumphs. Because I’ve written about mine, however, they freely reveal deeply personal experiences around our shared diagnosis.
These extraordinary individuals are leading meaningful lives, making time for activities they love, and maintaining strong and healthy relationships. They’re artists, nurses, entrepreneurs, musicians, diplomats, parents, physicians, teachers, attorneys, politicians, and the list goes on. Their “success” is not determined by a zip code or a bank account. It’s determined by the ability to fall down and get back up, to face rejection without letting it devastate them, to embrace uncertainty as opportunity, and to experience every failure as a temporary setback instead of a permanent letdown.
Each year I encounter hundreds more anecdotes from folks living with bipolar disorder, and without fail, I’ve found that people who are flourishing with this diagnosis—myself included at this point—have three things in common:
1. We have insight into the fact that bipolar disorder is a medical condition that requires treatment and we accept the fact that we have it. Once the diagnosis becomes indisputable, your best bet is always to accept it and move forward with that insight. After all, the easiest way to ensure a ruthless lifelong struggle with a mental health condition is to refuse to accept you have one.
2. We prioritize sleep. We recognize that getting too much or too little sleep—even over a short period of time—can be a recipe for disaster. As such, we pursue healthy sleep hygiene, even if it means leaving a party early or dragging ourselves out of bed when our limbs feel as heavy as tree trunks.
3. We maintain a responsible relationship with substances. This doesn’t mean we’re all teetotalers (though plenty are, including me). It simply means either that we have no history of substance abuse, or that if we do, we’re in recovery and committed to staying that way.
Of course, regardless of your medical history, it’s always wise to have insight into all of your health conditions, to prioritize sleep, and to maintain a responsible relationship with substances. But when you’re living with bipolar disorder, these best practices become all the more important, because they brace us against life’s countless pitfalls, from private disappointments to global pandemics. Indeed, they allow us to face rejection and uncertainty without being defined or derailed by either, keeping us grounded while preventing us from throwing tantrums and laptops alike.
Published as “Flight of Ideas: Hallmarks of Success,” Summer 2020
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