Accepting My Bipolar Disorder as an Integral Part of Me

I have a few friends who have varying levels of physical disability. If I arrange to meet somewhere, I now know to check if it’s accessible first. But if I forget to or get it wrong, I’m never angry at them if they ask if we can go somewhere that they can access.

When they tell me stories about times people have stigmatized them, patronized them or made assumptions about them, I am horrified — who would be so ignorant? This isn’t the Victorian times anymore!

I completely understand it’s essential they find work that makes reasonable adjustments to them and accommodates them. And if they can’t find that job, I totally get they can’t work and need benefits.

I would never, ever, compare them to someone without a physical disability and say, “Why haven’t you done that? Why aren’t you as successful as them?”

I totally get it. All of it.

I used to find it really hard to give myself the same understanding and accept that I have a disability.

Why did I feel guilty when I can’t go to a friend’s birthday party, because I felt unwell and there would be alcohol and late nights? Why did I feel like a loser because I couldn’t go on the girls holiday? Why was I never able to say, actually, can we do something more bipolar-friendly? It felt easier sometimes to just not have any friends.

Why did I get so angry about people stigmatizing, patronizing or making assumptions about me, but felt like I couldn’t tell the person in question how I felt? I watched as people said ridiculous things about my schizophrenic cousin, things I knew weren’t true. But I was afraid if I spoke up I too would experience the full family rejection he had. I thought I would also be seen as a huge burden to both my parents and society.

Why did I think I could work a high stress, full time job and just hope I could hide being bipolar? I was so afraid of stigma I pushed myself too hard and tried to pretend I was “normal.” I ended up in hospital after a breakdown rather than tell people I needed a little more understanding here and there. Because I felt if they knew about my condition I would be fired. I couldn’t access therapy, because I didn’t want my boss to know I was sick. Anything that might raise suspicion to my disorder, I tried to hide.

Why did I feel ashamed when I couldn’t work after my breakdown? That I wasn’t really disabled, and I should just be able to get my act together? If only I could stop sleeping, I could be really successful, I thought. I am just lazy.

Why did I think it was totally reasonable for someone to say they don’t want to be in a relationship with someone with bipolar disorder, when they didn’t even really know me? Why did I tell people up front, right away, so I could get the potential dumping out of the way quickly? Why did I put up with poor treatment? I thought I couldn’t really do any better, because who would want a bipolar girlfriend?

And why, oh why, did I compare myself with someone who does not have bipolar? The woman who is more successful than me, whose achievements I see posted about on Facebook, whose achievements I want — she does not have bipolar. Why were my expectations for myself not adjusted?

Because I did not see myself as having a disability. I had internalized stigma. I felt I was a faulty person. A person gone wrong. Not a person with a condition that can be very complicated and quite difficult to balance. I was running on broken legs, not getting far and falling often. I thought because my disability was hidden, I could just pretend it wasn’t there. I thought it’s the label of bipolar that holds the stigma, and if I can hide the label people won’t judge me. Not realizing that my behavior, my personality, is a huge part of what causes the stigma in the first place.

So now I am out and open about my condition. If someone does not want to be in my life because of my bipolar, I don’t want them there either. And yes, I do think they’re as bad as someone who doesn’t want to befriend someone with a physical disability.

A banner promoting The Mighty's new Bipolar 1 Support group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Join the Bipolar 1 Support group to connect with others who understand what it's really like to live with hypomania, rapid-cycling, depression and more. Click to join.

If someone is saying something ignorant about bipolar or mental health in general, I correct them. Yes it’s embarrassing for them, but it’s not as bad as the misinformation they spread about people like me, that I have to face the real consequences of. Consequences that affect my job prospects, relationships and physical health.

Most of all I accept who I am, I accept that many things in my day-to-day life have to be taken into consideration so I can stay as stable as possible. I need routine, I need my life to be low stress. It’s like walking on a tightrope sometimes, but it has to be done. I accept that some people are not right for me and some people don’t want to be there. I accept that all this effort to stay well means I am not always able to be a high flyer. Maybe I will never be able to travel the world or be the CEO of a 50 person business like I originally wanted. That’s OK, I am happy with my little freelance business and family holidays to Cornwall. I am a disabled person, I need to work around things sometimes. I can still make achievements, and maybe in some ways they’re more impressive because I am working with a disability.

Often people say I shouldn’t be defined by my bipolar, or see myself as disabled because I can achieve anything I put my mind to. But what should I do? Pretend I don’t have bipolar, or simply get better? Stop thinking about it? To suggest such a thing suggests that bipolar doesn’t affect my life in any meaningful way.

Some people do not see their bipolar as a disability and that’s great too. But I hope for those people, their life isn’t as impaired by their bipolar. I hope their bipolar genuinely isn’t holding them back.

If your bipolar is holding you back, I hope you can reach the same level of acceptance that I have. It’s OK to have a disability. And most of all I hope you too can feel proud of what you’ve achieved in life as a person with bipolar, whether that be traveling the world, buying your first home or simply surviving another day.

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