Typing the title above, I feel a twinge of terror and the proverbial butterflies in my stomach. Should I really write this post and go so blatantly public with my diagnosis of bipolar disorder? I believe there’s no choice, not if I want to keep it real. So here goes . . .
I earned my official diagnosis just 15 years ago. I was running ElderSource, Inc., the Licensed Home Care Services Agency I’d founded in 1990. We provided round-the-clock live-in care for a dozen or more clients, and the stress level was off the charts. Talk therapy wasn’t helping, so my therapist prescribed Zoloft for my anxiety and depression.
Within a few weeks I felt great – confident, energetic, creative. A little too great, as it turned out, because a few weeks after that, my mood escalated into an acute manic episode. A fascinating experience, and I’ll blog about it soon, but today I want to focus on the questions of disclosure and stigma.
The shrink started me on lithium, and soon I was stable enough to return to managing the agency. But the burn-out didn’t go away. We were making money, but I knew that if I continued, ElderSource would quite literally be the death of me. So we transferred our case load and closed our doors on Halloween in 1998.
After a year of hunkering down and licking my wounds, I got a job as Assistant Director at a psychiatric social club run by a not-for-profit agency in the Capital Region of New York. I didn’t disclose my diagnosis when they interviewed and hired me. Things seemed to be going swimmingly until about nine months later. During an afternoon art group with a handful of clients, a woman was discussing her problems with bipolar disorder, and I told her I understood because I shared her diagnosis – I too was bipolar.
Back home at 5:30, the phone rang. It was my boss, asking me to report to Human Resources the next morning at 9:00. There I learned the client had gone to another staff person, a man I supervised who hated my guts, saying “Guess what, Julie told us she’s bipolar.” He in turn had gone to my boss. I was fired next morning without warning. Of course it had nothing to do with my bipolar disclosure, they said; there had been problems with my job performance all along. (Admittedly there were problems – with my M.A. in Art Therapy from NYU and my two decades of experience, I wasn’t on the same wavelength with the staff, most of whom had little or no formal training in working with the mentally ill. A couple of years later, the club was shut down.)
I tried to appeal, consulted lawyers, but they told me my case would be difficult to prove, and I wasn’t ready to put myself through all that pain. So what did I do? Inspired by the setting and the clients I’d just left, I hunkered down and wrote Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders. The heroine, Erika Norgren, runs a psychiatric social club in New York City’s East Village. And when she proclaims her bipolar diagnosis – on the evening TV news, no less – no one dares fire her. Naturally, she goes on to solve a string of murders.
Since Mood Swing was published, I’ve been upfront about my diagnosis at local panels and signings and in one-to-one conversations, and the response has been overwhelming. Many people have said “I don’t usually tell anyone this,” and proceeded to confide in me about their own diagnosis, or that of a family member or friend.
The bio in my book doesn’t mention my bipolar diagnosis, and this is the first time I’ve written about it online. I’ve worried that potential agents or publishers might be put off by the diagnosis. But if that’s the case, I probably wouldn’t want to work with them anyway. Staying in the closet feels dishonest, especially when so many people still suffer from the stigma of mental illness.
So I’ll say it again – I’m bipolar, I’m out and I’m proud.