I’m bipolar, I’m out, and I’m proud

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.

6 thoughts on “I’m bipolar, I’m out, and I’m proud

  1. Thanks, Jane, I really appreciate your comment – especially since I haven’t heard from anyone else yet. The waiting is the hardest part, as Tom Petty says.

  2. Interesting perspective. I like the idea for the character in your book to be bipolar because it is something that makes them real, and not a “cookie cutter” character. I also like that you are helping to give your audience a glimpse of what it is like to live with this condition. There are a lot of misconceptions about this syndrom; I am glad to see something positive coming out. I am currently reading a fantasy where the protagonist is bipolar as well. Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    Nancy, from Just a Thought…

    • Thanks, Nancy. I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback from readers who appreciated the positive portrayal of a woman with bipolar disorder who not only copes with her condition but triumphs in spite of it. One woman with a bipolar daughter said it helped her understand her daughter’s state of mind as never before.

  3. Hi Julie,
    Sorry I didn’t respond sooner, but I was offline yesterday. How very brave of you to begin talking about this openly. Having written a memoir about childhood sexual molestation and dysfunctional parents, I can understand the fear which comes from disclosing secrets. But I truly don’t believe you have anything to fear regarding agents and publishers shunning you because of this diagnosis. And you’re right, if they did, you wouldn’t want to work with them anyway. Trust me, the energy will shift after awhile and it won’t carry such a high charge as it does right now when you’ve just decided to go public. The more you talk about it, the easier it will be.

  4. I suspect everyone has things they’d rather not talk about, and there’s always a feeling of risk when they take that big step. But most people are good and understanding and sympathetic. I hope you find comfort in the telling, and encouragement from the comments you receive.


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