Common Things I Hear as Someone Who Has Bipolar

It’s been about three years since the inception of “Redefining Bipolar” and everything that coincided with the creation of this website. I’ve done many speaking engagements, a lot of questioning and answering, and generally being out and about as someone who lives with mental illness. So over the past few years, there are some common questions and remarks people have posed to me; I thought it might be neat to put a few down in a post for some weekend food for thought. Let’s dive right in with the big one:

“You’re so brave.”

To see gratitude in someone’s eyes and hear it in their words warms my heart. I don’t mean to take away from that sentiment, as it is indeed something I respect and find comforting to see in others. What I do want to add is my thoughts on this phrase and how I view myself in relation to it. The concept of being “brave” doesn’t resonate with me as much as other adjectives might. Part of the definition of brave does include facing danger or pain; when I do public speaking, I’m not putting myself in a position that would cause me pain. I’ve never had any negative repercussions from being public about my bipolar. I have privileges in life that secure my position in it, such as being an academic and having a safety net of people who could rush to my aide at any sign of structural or social threat. I certainly didn’t always have this, so being “brave” was at some point relevant. But it’s not anymore. I’m not brave. In an abstract way, I’m basically just secured and insured to some degree. I enjoy public speaking immensely and I have privileges others in my position don’t always have. No, it’s not without risk — but the risk is much smaller to me than it is for others. So I see this as a moral obligation. At one presentation I had recently, someone in the audience asked me why I am so open when I speak. My answer was simple: Someone has to, and I seem to have the skills to do so.

“What can I do to help my friend/colleague/etc. who has bipolar?”

When people ask me this question, I understand where they’re coming from. But, what always goes through my mind is, “Well, I don’t know — who are they?” While there are some general skills that you can use to navigate the realm of bipolar — like active listening and generally being empathic — every person is different. It’s also a loaded question, because what exactly does that person need help with? Or do they even need help at all? Even with my having bipolar, I still need to be mindful that I’m not seeing problems that don’t exist in my friends who also have bipolar. But, there’s a simple solution here: Talk to the person and see if they need help. Engage in a dialogue while being mindful of emotional boundaries.

This is more nuanced in situations where symptoms may be appearing or escalating quickly. Depending on who you are in that person’s life, it may not be appropriate to intervene even if your intentions are good. For myself, I wouldn’t want anyone helping me unless we have an existing relationship where we’ve talked about my bipolar and that person’s role in my life. There are some people I wouldn’t want helping me under any circumstances, and there are specific people in my life who know how to help me in all the different emotional/cognitive/behavioural states I can be in. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, so my best answer for this is always to talk with that person and get to know them — you know, as a person, not just someone who has bipolar.

I have a draft I’ve been working on for a long time about helping someone with bipolar, so when that’s finally done I’ll link it here.

Scenario: Self-validating audience members.

This is a particularly interesting phenomenon to observe as a speaker. I’ve gone to many events where there’s a q&a portion of the presentation, and sometimes the following happens: Someone asks a question to confirm something about bipolar that they really need to have confirmed. For example, take someone who asks a question about the genetics of bipolar. I’ll explain that studies have shown it can run in families, but we don’t have the knowledge about genetics to point to any causal relationship, and there are still many psychosocial factors to analyze. And yet said person will respond with something like, “I knew it was a biological condition.” These self-confirming biases are predominant in society, so it’s not a surprising scenario to run into.

What makes me so curious about these situations, though, is what’s going on in that person’s life that they’re so badly looking for answers. Sometimes I get the opportunity to follow up with people after the presentation, as I find many people get some sort of relief by expressing their circumstances. For me it brings up the ache of knowing I could whip out resource after resource and sometimes it’s just not about knowledge. Sometimes I listen to people and there’s such pain in their hearts that’s leaking out. It’s difficult knowing all I can do is listen, but I hope it does help in some capacity. Speaking of being brave — to me it’s the audience members who often hold this quality. Since it is a stigmatized topic, it’s not always easy showing up in a room full of strangers not knowing what to expect.

So those are some thoughts for now.

If you have any questions, there’s now an option to ask anonymously! Just look at the navigation bar for ways to contact me. I’m happy to answer anything.