I attended a dinner party the other night. Nothing fancy. I was a friend’s plus-one and was excited for free food and light conversation. The room was mostly filled with my friend’s co-workers, people who I’d met once or twice.
I’d found this particular group loved to gossip … and gossip they did. An uninvested audience to the venting and storytelling, I silently munched on cheese and crackers. Then, the focus shifted to someone they all knew, someone who’d been going through a tough time.
“Oh, her? She’s a complete mess.”
“Yeah, she’s off her meds again. Hahahaha.”
They talked so much crap about this woman, highlighting her shortcomings as if they were all perfect and without fault.
More laughter. Knee slapping. Me feeling increasingly agitated. Whatever excitement I entered with had dwindled.
At some point, the topic of Kanye West came up. No one directly mentioned his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, but I gripped my chair tightly and slowed my breathing, bracing myself for the topic to arise, and for the rap superstar to be regarded as someone else off their meds again.
I often coach myself to “toughen up,” or “let it go” when I’m at social events. I rarely go out much anymore now that I’m a stay-at-home dad. Also, a lot of my friendships burned down during my manic episode last year. I’m aware everyone isn’t actively fighting mental health stigma, but words can hurt. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much for a phrase or a story to snap us back into a negative feeling or down a shame spiral, especially if your life has been impacted by mental illness.
Back to the dinner party. A majority of the people dining that night knew all about my manic break last year because I shared so much of the experience in real time via social media. They’d never brought it up in my presence, but I couldn’t help but wonder: have they talked about me like this and the mess I am? Did they make me into a hated pariah when I was at the height of my episode, destroying everything in my path? Have they jokingly referred to me as being off my meds?
I found myself silently defending myself. I assumed no one would turn to me and flat-out ask me about my bipolar disorder, but what if they did? What would I tell them?
People say inaccurate things about mental illness all the time. We live in a world of armchair therapists. So for starters, I’d challenge the misconceptions around it. I still struggle with a lot of these lies about my illness, and you might, too. But, it’s important to face what we’re up against and name the places where we get stuck, the places where we believe things about ourselves that aren’t true.
Here are 10 lies about bipolar disorder we can stop believing.
Bipolar disorder is not:
1. An invitation for anyone to call you “crazy.”
The word “crazy” is trite and dismissive. It’s a word that’s been used to other people and push them out. It invalidates your experience, and in turn, suggests you’re invalid.
2. How anyone gets to define you.
I’ve opted to use people-first language as much as possible. For example, I wouldn’t call someone an anxious person. I’d say they’re someone living with anxiety. Saying someone lives with an illness gives them their power back, and allows you to regard them with dignity. People are complex. We’re multi-dimensional and layered. So, it doesn’t make sense to boil a person down to one trait they have, even if it might seem like their most salient quality.
3. An excuse for how you’ve hurt anyone in your life.
For many people, mania has left a wake of hurt and destruction in its path. But, it’s not an excuse. It doesn’t absolve you of the pain you’ve caused. So, I’ve found it both liberating and important to apologize and take ownership for the things I’ve done that have negatively impacted the people in my life.
4. As an invitation to treat you badly.
Yes, your actions may have caused harm, but you are not a “bad” person. There’s a difference. Guilt says, “What I did was wrong.” Shame says, “I am wrong.”
5. Something that makes you undesirable.
You can still date if you live with bipolar disorder. Swipe left. Swipe right. You still have qualities that people will find interesting, intriguing and awesome.
6. Something that makes you unlovable.
You get to have the relationships you want in your life. People might take a long time to completely forgive you, but know that healing takes time. Still, I hope you’re able to open up to the people closest to you, and feel seen and heard.
7. Grounds to call you untrustworthy.
My therapist taught me a technique to use when I find myself buried in guilt. She told me to ask myself: “Is this true?” Someone recently told me a lot of people don’t trust me anymore. So, I asked myself if that was true (it wasn’t) and I realized a more powerful truth: I trust me. I take my meds. I go to therapy. I know I’m a reliable person.
8. Always easy to live with.
Some days are better than others. Sometimes the meds don’t work or have adverse effects. Living with bipolar disorder can be a real struggle bus.
9. Widely spoken about in an accurate manner.
This is part of the reason it’s so hard to fight and end the stigma around bipolar disorder and mental illness in general. In addition, each person has a unique experience with bipolar disorder, even though some of the symptoms may be similar.
10. A sign your life is over.
Keep showing up. We need you. You will get through this. I’ve found group therapy to find to be a helpful reminder that others face the same challenges I do.
As we continue to challenge the misconceptions around bipolar disorder, let’s also remember to rest and to set boundaries. Every battle doesn’t need to be your battle. And every fight doesn’t need to be your fight. You’ll never be able to change everyone’s mind about the illness you live with, but you can certainly work on unlearning your own false narratives. That’s what I’m working to do every day — even at dinner parties.