I watched a video the other day about children with mental health problems. The video began with them wearing labels of which particular illness they had (bipolar, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit, etc). At the end of the video they peeled off their labels to reveal what they wanted to do with their lives; to be a lawyer, a professional footballer or a pianist, for example.
It made me think about what being labelled does to us, and more importantly our reputations. In England, by law, you now have to disclose any mental illness you may have on a job application.
How do I feel about this?
As a person with bipolar, I cannot deny that when I am unwell my problems will inevitably transfer into my work place. It’s not my fault, not when I’m manic or depressed but at the same time I can’t help it, and a lot of the time I wouldn’t be doing my job properly.
On the other hand, all mental illnesses come with a huge stigma attached to them and so when an employer sees the word ‘bipolar’ written on a job application, well that’s pretty much all they’re going to see. They’re not going to remember the part that says ‘plenty of experience in this field’ or ‘good with customers’, they’re probably going to see something more like: ‘I will be constant trouble. When I’m manic I will run wild, get paranoid and maybe even threaten my co-workers with a knife. When I’m depressed I won’t show up for work for weeks on end and you’ll eventually have to fire me.’ No one can help thinking these things about people like me; it’s just the taboo that follows us around. Even if I went into remission for 20 years, I will always be bipolar on paper and always be considered less appropriate than other, more ‘normal’ people for the job; whatever job.
But it’s not just job hunting which becomes a problem once you carry the burden of a diagnosis, it’s car insurance, travel insurance, CRB checks and anything official.
So, if it’s hard enough getting anything official done, try entering into a new relationship and telling them you have bipolar.
I’ve never been one to hide my illness, not from anyone and probably to my detriment. This is because I’m not at all ashamed of it. Yes, I can be a nightmare but being a nightmare has turned me into a strong human being and I am proud of what I have had to face and come through to get to where I am now, emotionally and literally. In fact, it’s always one of the first things I tell new partners. I probably shouldn’t advertise it as much as I do (considering the way most people view mental illness)- it’s surprising I haven’t put anyone off yet- but I also think it makes me interesting.
However, I don’t imagine other people have had the same luck I have with being so open and honest. Most (uninformed) people think a person with bipolar is…
- Insane, to put it simply. Most people think that having bipolar means you’re completely mad, 100% of the time.
- Scary. Some people seem to think that people with bipolar are dangerous in some way; like when we’re manic we suddenly become violent.
- I have seen some films and documentaries which show someone having a ‘manic episode’ where they’re running the streets naked or talking about how they think they’re Jesus. Yes, this does happen but only during full-blown mania.
- Emotionally vulnerable. Again, I’ve seen fictional films and programs where the character with bipolar can go from ecstatic to suicidal in the space of about five seconds. This may exist in some rare form of bipolar- I don’t know- but my point is that rapid cycling isn’t that quick and we’re not like it all the time. I myself have Rapid Cycling Bipolar which means my moods can swing up to hourly, but I’m not like that when I’m well.
A lot of people with bipolar have dramatic symptoms where they can go from full-blown mania to suicidal depression during an episode, but others have much more subtle symptoms, everyone is different. My episodes differ every time; sometimes I am only hypomanic, followed by a less serious drop into depression and sometimes I experience full-blown mania and then crash and become suicidal.
So, if I’m bipolar, am I still ‘normal’?
Absolutely. Having a mental illness- any mental illness- does not define a person. For me, my bipolar is not even a part of me; not of my mind and not of my body. It is an illness and therefore a separate force which essentially invades my mind, and not by my will.
People with a whole range of mental illnesses can still live normal lives, so long as they are under the right care and supervision and look after themselves. However, having an illness like bipolar does not come Scott-free, there are measures we have to take that other people without a problem don’t have to. Medication is often needed (although not the answer to everything), most people need the care of a psychiatrist and we have to be careful not to make ourselves unwell by doing things like drinking too much caffeine or not getting enough sleep.
If we take the necessary precautions, nothing should stop us from living a normal lifestyle, just like anyone else.