science of us

6 Women on Living With Bipolar Disorder

Two women talking.
Photo: Nicolas McComber/Getty Images

Last week, Mariah Carey revealed that she had been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder in 2001. In an interview with People, for the magazine’s cover story, Carey told the reporter that she lived in “constant fear someone would expose [her],” and that keeping her diagnosis under wraps had become “too heavy a burden to carry.”

Talking about your mental health isn’t easy, even when it’s not on the cover of a national magazine. Telling those close to you that you’re suffering from something they can’t see and might not understand is scary and overwhelming. It’s also a highly personal decision — yours and yours alone — to share or not.

We spoke with six women about their choice to tell (or not to tell) their friends, families, and colleagues about living with bipolar disorder.

I shared my diagnosis publicly, both on social media and in my writing. I’m pretty blunt about it, but I’m also challenging people to rethink the stereotypes they may have embraced about bipolar disorder and mental illness. The people I’m closest to understand my condition and they know that symptoms may crop up, just as they would if I was diabetic or epileptic. That makes it easier for me to name my symptoms and actively manage them when they arise.

I want a world where it’s a good idea for everyone to speak openly if they want to, and we aren’t there yet. I do think it makes sense for those of us who can afford to take some chances to do so, because someone has to kick those doors open. I know it’s scary. In 2015, I wrote a piece in which I came out about my condition as well as my history of addiction, and the moment I sent it to my editor, I started to cry. I knew it was the right thing to do but I was overwhelmed. My partner was there beside me — he held me and told me he was proud and that the piece would help people. I sobbed into his shoulder and hoped he was right. Three years later, I can say that hitting ‘send’ on that piece was one of my best decisions.

I’ve talked to a number of people with bipolar disorder who feel there’s no hope, and I’m sure stigma and poor mental health care play a role in that hopelessness. But I also think lack of awareness plays a role. Since some people can get by without revealing their diagnosis, people who are struggling don’t always know it’s possible to have bipolar disorder and also be okay. So I want people to know it’s possible.

I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder in August of 2017. I’ve told my parents and few very close friends. I told my parents once the meds started working and it sunk in that I actually have this disorder. I had been keeping a few friends up to date on my progress after a ten-year hiatus with a psychiatrist, so when I told them about the diagnosis it wasn’t much of a surprise. They were there with me through the journey of deciding whether or not I wanted to see a psychiatrist or try medication ever again. So when the meds worked, I just pinged them and said, “Welp. This is a thing.”

It makes me nervous that people don’t know the difference between bipolar I and bipolar II. [Editor’s note: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar I is defined by manic episodes lasting at least seven days and/or mania severe enough to require immediate medical care. It can also include depressive episodes. Bipolar II is defined by depressive and hypomanic periods, but not full-blown mania as with bipolar I.]

I have to tell them, “I don’t have bipolar I. My disorder relates more to my energy levels than to my emotional regulation. I don’t have wild emotional swings. I don’t engage in risky behavior. I have a good handle on my emotions. But sometimes I can’t sleep at all and am working all the time and sometimes I just get sad. My meds don’t dull the mania (those energy bursts) — they just bring those dips I experience up a bit so that the lows aren’t as bad.”

I had an instinct to be like, “fuck it, I’m going to de-stigmatize bipolar II by telling people about it!” because people think of me as a stable, “normal” person and I want to show them that I’m a person you respect, trust, and admire, and I have this disorder, too. But I had to recognize that my diagnosis is pretty new and I’m still wrapping my head around it, and it is not your duty to take on the de-stigmatization of mental illness on your own. Tell people only when you feel comfortable and ready.

In my experience, stigma and discrimination are often worse than a bipolar diagnosis itself. I left two jobs in the last year due to the mismanagement of my mental illness, and I’ve found getting support and reasonable adjustments in the workplace to be very difficult. I had to fight for bipolar awareness training so that my managers and colleagues could understand more about how it affects me.

Disclosing my mental health always comes with possible consequences. I told my current partner that I have bipolar disorder when we first met and he was fine about it — he’s very supportive and understanding. My parents have found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that I have a serious mental illness, but they’re great at giving me practical support and encouragement. I’m unemployed at the moment and I’m realistic that if I disclose my mental illness on an application, I probably won’t get an interview. If you’re famous with lots of money, these barriers might not concern you.

My advice about disclosing your mental illness is to seek support and advice (here in the U.K. I recommend Bipolar UK, which provides employment support). You don’t have to disclose your mental illness on an application form or during an interview here, but I fully disclosed it in a meeting with my manager, HR representative, union representative, and mental-health representative. I prepared a speech to stand up for my rights and I was very nervous, but I did it. I also set up a mental-health group for staff and we did some good work including training around stigma. Small things can make a big difference.

Living with bipolar I is not easy. I’m thankful to have a diagnosis because finally I have answers to questions I’ve had over the years, like, why am I so irritable? Why can’t I sleep? Why do I get these bouts of rage, episodes of depression, and days on end without food or rest? It didn’t make sense to me for years. I went through a really bad depression period where I lost 60 pounds and had frequent colds and other illnesses, but all tests came back clear. Months later, my doctors came to the diagnosis of bipolar I and nothing has ever made more sense. Having this diagnosis is a long, hard road, but I’m thankful to have somewhere to start.

I’ve told my mom, my girlfriend, and my close friends about my diagnosis. The first person I told was my girlfriend, who I’d told I was suspecting bipolar before being officially diagnosed. She was supportive and wanted to learn everything she could, and she agreed that the diagnosis made a lot of sense. I’ve also told a college teacher and she’s, thankfully, been very willing to help if I miss any assignments due to my mental health.

The hardest thing about sharing is the reaction of, “just get over it,” or, “it’s all in your head.” I’ve gotten that reaction plenty of times and nothing is more mind-boggling than trying to explain your mental illness to someone who doesn’t believe in mental illness. But I’ve opened a few people’s eyes, so that’s a good thing! If you’re newly diagnosed, just embrace it. This is your life. The best thing to do is own your diagnosis and take control as best you can. Don’t be afraid — bipolar doesn’t have to win.

I was diagnosed with bipolar I around January of 2016 by my psychiatrist. I’ve been 100 percent transparent with everyone I know except my employer. It’s important to me that my friends and family know so that they can keep track of certain symptoms and know best how to help me when shit goes awry. I’ve only had supportive and encouraging responses except once or twice at school. I’m in a master’s of psychology program and after learning about bipolar disorder in a diagnostic class, a classmate turned to me and said something like, “I can’t believe you’re bipolar. You seem so chill and normal!” That’s exactly why I talk so freely about it. It kind of blows my mind how deeply the stigma runs, even within people who think they want to help. I’m a proponent of “the personal is political” and feel like I can’t make changes unless I start on the micro level in my everyday life.

I haven’t told my employer because they’re kind of pieces of shit. I was working through the majority of the manic episode that finally landed me a correct diagnosis, which means some of my colleagues witnessed pretty embarrassing manic behavior. I ended up taking a medical leave to go to rehab, then spiraled into a debilitating depression that kept me out of work and on short-term disability for about eight months. When I returned, they stripped me of all of my creative responsibilities and now I basically do data entry. Obviously, they didn’t react well and it took me about a year of being back to work before things started to feel “normal” again.

As much as I’m like, “LOL I’m gonna change the world!” I can totally understand others’ need for privacy. I can’t tell someone what to do when there can be so many factors that might inform their decision. But I’d say at the very least, it’s important to keep the people closest to you — who you see on a regular basis — in the loop. I’ve found it really helpful to have others who can keep me accountable and help get me through if shit does hit the fan again.

I’ve shared my diagnosis with my boyfriend, my family, and my boyfriend’s family. When sharing my diagnosis, I was worried about people being rude or not supportive. While people are slowing becoming more accepting of depression and anxiety, bipolar is still considered one of the really “scary” mental illnesses. I moved a few years ago and started seeing a new psychiatrist, and I was really worried about how she’d react. You’d think all psychiatrists would treat everyone equally, no matter what they have, but that hasn’t been my experience. My current psychiatrist is absolutely wonderful, however, and really understanding and supportive. Working with her has helped me become stable and successful and happy.

I told a doctor once, while seeking treatment for a separate issue, and the way she treated me after that was so different. She stopped taking me seriously and was really rude and condescending. I was horrified. Ever since then, I just tell doctors that I have a mood disorder. They usually assume I have “regular” depression, and I don’t correct them.

I have disability accommodations at school for my chronic illness, but I haven’t brought up bipolar. I don’t want it documented or used against me. I don’t tell people I don’t know well. I’m not ashamed of having bipolar, but I’m very aware of our society’s stigma against mentally ill people. It’s exhausting to see that stigma enforced over and over again in movies and on TV. By being private about my diagnosis, I’m just trying to take care of myself.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

6 Women on Living With Bipolar Disorder