We've Gotta Have it
Make Your Voice Heard
My Decision to Be “Out” with Bipolar Disorder
Escaping a cloud of shame and guilt, I rejected the stigma around mental health in hopes of connecting with others
“I have bipolar.”
“I am bipolar.”
“I live with bipolar.”
I contemplated the best way to say this when I publicly declared this truth to people I knew and strangers alike. I had just begun a budding career in writing — memoir, specifically — pouring my truths onto pages for all to see. For too many years, I had been consumed by the silence; I needed to escape the smothering cloud of shame and guilt that came with bipolar disorder, and something within me assured me that the only way to rid myself of it was by exposing it for what it is, by rejecting once and for all the nauseating stigma around mental illness.
Mental health was being normalized in many forms. I was watching more and more of it on TV, and I was reading about it more often in the media. I saw an increasing number of celebrities claiming their disorder. I felt seen; I felt an alliance with strangers on the screen. I wanted to be part of the movement, in hopes that it would help others like me feel less alone and others still to gain a better understanding of mental illness and become better allies. But the thought of revealing my darkest secret made me feel naked to my knickers.
Still, I began to write, detailing how I reclaimed my life after trauma and despite struggling with bipolar disorder. At first, it was only my coach and editor who saw the words and was privy to the full story of the malady of my brain. I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote, with no consideration for the fact that there would ever be other eyes on what was on my computer screen. Eventually, however, as I embraced the title of author, it became necessary to build a platform for my writing, and blogging became one of the focal points. I published pieces about my struggles with mental illness online for the world to see — and I was descriptive with my words of the pain that plagued my mind, covertly but not so covertly admitting to my affliction whilst cloaking myself in hopes for understanding. I was afraid, I was embarrassed, but I wanted to be brave.
Then came the comments and messages from strangers lauding me for my courage, connecting with me through our shared experiences, and asking me for advice on how to engage with their loved ones who had bipolar. The conversations were uncomfortable, even though they were positive, but still I engaged. It felt good to believe that I was now part of the movement I had long been in awe of. I was beginning to normalize mental health for myself.
Then I began participating in podcasts. I spoke of my experience with bipolar disorder with strangers. Again, not entirely comfortable with the subject — which many in our society still view as taboo — but trying to be brave, to be the change I wanted to see in my world. Some interviews were easier: I felt more than capable of recounting my experiences and how bipolar disorder has affected my life in a matter-of-fact storytelling way. Others, however, were more intimidating, as when podcast hosts probed with questions surrounding my family and children. My insides churned as I considered what had been said to me by a therapist in the past: “You should not have children, considering your condition.” I was angry at the stigma that stood around mental illness: we are invalids, we are to be feared, we are unstable, we are unreliable, we are not “normal.” But as much as I raged against this stereotyping, my fear and shame around my bipolar was overpowering.
Dozens of podcasts in, I learned to be more comfortable participating in conversations normalizing mental health. I would be a voice for those like me; I would continue to build a platform to chip away at the stigma surrounding mental illness. I began believing with more and more gusto that I was a functioning member of society despite my mental illness. The more I spoke, the more that conviction came to the forefront for me.
By now, emails and messages from strangers had become the norm — but I was still hiding behind my keyboard and within the walls of my home. I dreaded the possibility of my friends and family knowing my truth. I anticipated pity, judgment, and everything else the stigma brought with it, even as I hoped for understanding. I wanted nothing more than for no one to broach the subject with me out loud, and for them to all practice their respective understandings in silence.
It turned out my friends and family were not the silent types. Many were quick to assure me of their support — “We’re here for you, whatever you need”; “I’m so sorry — I didn’t know.” Then there were some of the more revealing responses that made me feel naked in public — “Is this why you ghosted us?” “I heard in one of the podcasts you were on that you need time alone a lot. Let me know when you feel up to talking.” The sound of pity and sorrow in their suggestions sent me into a coil of shame and disgust with myself.
Then I couldn’t help but second-guess our interactions: Are they not being honest with me because they’re afraid I’ll collapse into smithereens from their words? I wondered if they didn’t include me in volunteer activities because they were being sensitive and didn’t want to burden me further. And then there were those who rarely spoke to me before, who were now checking in all the time. Do I need to be open and vulnerable and entirely honest with every single person I know? I wondered. The one that struck me in the gut the most were the ones that couldn’t believe I had a mental illness — “I mean, you’re so productive and outgoing and have done these amazing things in the time that I’ve known you; I had no idea. It’s almost unbelievable that you have bipolar!” I didn’t look the part? What was that supposed to look like? I realized then how high-functioning I was — so much so that it seemed improbable to those around me that I had any issues. Realizing this, my commitment to fight the stigma by uncloaking my truths grew even stronger.
I then tried something new: when I was depressed or irritable or restless and I would get texts from my friends, I just texted back “I’m in a funk, maybe next time.” Then I sat with that confession and left it to them to be normalized too. I wondered about the discomfort they would be in but believed that the more it happened the more normalized it would become.
Recently, I was invited to participate in my county’s mental health court as a guest speaker in their weekly programming — to share my experiences with recovery as a source of encouragement for others who are navigating life with mental illness. The first time I spoke to one of these groups, it was the first time I said the words “I have bipolar disorder type 2” out loud. I found it liberating. I found comfort in talking to others who were struggling through the illness and the stigma. I spoke with conviction and confidence that day despite my jitters, and I pulled through with my eye on the prize: advocating for recovery.
After all is said and done, I still experience discomfort when voicing my truth. Though I believe the fear, shame, and guilt may dissipate as I continue in my advocacy, I do not believe it will ever be entirely erased — and I’m glad for that, as that tinge of discomfort is the source of my fire. Bipolar no longer defines me, but rather, the courage I muster to battle the stigma around mental illness does. Perhaps we will arrive at a day when mental illness will be treated like any other physical illness, and not as something taboo.
Until then, I will cope with the discomfort I feel each time I bare my truth: I have bipolar.
Amelia Zachry was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and is an advocate for sexual assault survivors and those who suffer from mental illness. Her memoir, Enough: A Memoir of Mistakes, Mania, and Motherhood, is out now.