I have bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that has shaped my career, my relationships and even my sense of self. Yet, until recently, I treated this part of my life as a shameful secret to be hidden at all costs. The negative stereotypes surrounding bipolar disorder, combined with some hurtful personal experiences when sharing my experience, made me terrified to reveal my diagnosis. Even many close friends and family members did not know.
What I later realized, however, was the cost of keeping this secret. By hiding my diagnosis, I was placing a heavy burden on myself — depriving myself of the chance to be in control of my personal story — one that I eventually decided to lift. I would be lying if I said that sharing my diagnosis is never awkward or frightening, but this is only half the picture. What I never expected was how empowering sharing my diagnosis would be.
Taking Control of the Narrative
Last October, I faced a difficult turning point in my mental health journey. I had a manic episode, and during the height of mania, I sent nonsensical emails to my graduate student peers. I often suffer memory loss during episodes, but I know that the emails focused on “magic spells” and a belief that someone was trying to hurt me.
Some of my peers found my emails frightening and expressed concern for their personal safety. When I heard this, I was dumbstruck. Even amid my mania, I was shocked to realize that people might be afraid of me. To be clear, I blame negative media portrayals of mental illness and not my peers for this reaction. As a psychologist, I know that humans make inferences about the world based on what we see. And what we see in books, movies, and TV shows is mental illness paired with violence and chaos.
When the episode was over, I made the decision to stop hiding. My peers’ reaction helped me see that people need exposure to mental illness. People are often afraid of things they do not understand. I wanted to facilitate change by educating my peers. Additionally, I realized that telling my story allows me to control the narrative, rather than allowing gossip and secondhand information to take shape.
So, I wrote an email to my peers explaining that I have bipolar disorder and included educational information on psychosis. Hitting “send” on that email was excruciating, but luckily, my peers responded positively. One even thanked me. Although I wish this incident had not taken place at all, I am grateful for the personal growth it inspired. Since then, I have become more open about my mental health and have even sought out opportunities to share my experiences with others.
Disclosing is a Process
The more I tell my story, the more I realize that disclosing one’s mental illness is an art, not a science. “Coming out” is a never-ending process, not a one-time grand event. I’ve learned that you do not have to tell everything to everyone. For example, I can disclose my diagnosis but keep private details, such as the medications I take and my medical history, to myself. Or I might share intimate details with one person and the bare minimum with another. Realizing I could make these distinctions has been liberating and made the disclosure process easier. Now, when symptoms arise, it feels incredibly freeing to simply tell the truth rather than make up yet another excuse for canceled plans or odd behavior.
I don’t have all the answers, nor do I want to pressure anyone to talk about their mental health. But I strongly believe that mental illness will never be destigmatized until more people speak openly about it, and I want to lead by example. I have always loved the words of Marianne Williamson: “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
When we share our stories, we inadvertently give others permission to do the same. Uttering the words, “I have a mental illness,” brings to light something that was previously shrouded in secrecy and darkness, and that is a powerful act.
Ashley Ransom completed her Ph.D. in developmental psychology at Cornell University and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She is passionate about mental health advocacy and aims to use her experiences with bipolar disorder to help and educate others