I just gave a talk at the National Women’s Studies Association about the reasons I am not out, wholesale, to my classes. If it comes up naturally, which sometimes occurs with smaller groups of students, I will take that opportunity to clarify for them. These are what Mary Elliott refers to as Golden Moments, and I build my identity disclosure around the concept. I do not deny my sexuality, nor am I ashamed of it, but I have not found yet that this part of my identity has a place in my classroom, for various and sundry reasons.
I do write very openly here, though, and have outed myself in multiple respects in these pages. I am lucky to have an editor who is not only accepting but encouraging of varied viewpoints, and it has helped me to come to terms with my public self here in Statesboro. Students do find my column, and then they know, in a way that is made obvious to me by newfound eye contact, oddly-timed smiles, or even an outright admission: I read your column last night. These are Golden Moments, and writing here has helped me to have them.
I have not been so forthcoming about another, equally important aspect of my identity: mental illness. With my sexuality, I live with pride while maintaining privacy; with my diagnosis, I live with a deep, internalized shame that keeps me quiet. While my wife keeps trying to help me rework my thinking around this, encouraging me to say “I have bipolar” versus “I am bipolar,” the daily reality of coping with bipolar disorder in a career that demands responsibility, organization, timeliness, professionalism, and consistency does feel a bit like I have become my diagnosis: I am just so exhausted. By struggle, by pretense, by shame and subterfuge. Whether I vilify it or embrace/live despite it, bipolar disorder is a lens through which I see the world, and is oftentimes a blinding one.
For years, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. I took my meds religiously but maintained the same level of anxiety, sadness, inertia, or, alternately, elation and lack of impulse control. I have always been open about this particular diagnosis, but when my father died a few years ago, the severity of my misdiagnosis became painfully clear. My sister, crying, had to beg me to find a psychiatrist who could reconsider what was happening in and to my brain.
I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, I was intoxicated in one way or another all day and all night. I was having the strangest, waking fever dreams about unattainable goals and things that absolutely do not fit with my personality: as a shy homebody and introvert, I was going to run for office. I was going to open a doll museum with satellite locations all across the country in spaces my friends might volunteer to my efforts. I became obsessed with procuring every toy I loved in my childhood, and spent thousands on eBay, only to abandon all of those toys soon after my father died.
It was an ugly time. I felt both invincible and entirely foreign to myself. I could kind of see the mess I was in, but attributed it wholly to grief. But I listen to my sister, and my first appointment with my psychiatrist was exactly one week after my father passed. It was an easy diagnosis for him, based on surveys I completed and conversations we had, likely also based on affect, because I was pretty clearly unhinged. We spent the next year trying every medication under the sun. On an average of six medications at a time, I often get incredulous looks in pharmacies. It quickly became clear to me that I know at least one person in most pharmacies in Statesboro, so my condition became evident without my wanting it announced: antipsychotics, anti-seizure medications, various sleep aids, antidepressants, antianxiety meds that tipped into controlled substance territory.
Almost all of these made me ill in some fashion, and I kept a spreadsheet detailing day of prescription, how long taken, side effects, and date treatment was stopped. There were migraines, and vomiting, and gastrointestinal pain that sent me to urgent care. There was uncontrollable shaking, worsening insomnia, crippling lethargy, aggressive bruising at the slightest touch, loss of appetite, considerable weight gain, and at times, worsening bipolar symptoms.
Finally, we rounded a corner to a cocktail that seems to work. The danger in such a statement is in knowing that these combinations will not always work, and while the limbo between changes in medication are joyous and level, I know each time that another adjustment will eventually come.
But with proper medication, my personality shifted and my behaviors changed. I have had a fiery temper all of my life, and now it is significantly tempered. I drank too much, for most of my adult life, and now I have a headache if I have more than two beers. I chain-smoked and was able to put that aside, as well.
I’m not fixed. I am still anxious enough that sleep, which is difficult for people with bipolar anyway, continues to elude most nights. I am morose in a way I recognize from my Major Depressive days, as this is how my bipolar primarily displays: through sadness. I have a hard time leaving the house some days, even into the yard. The effort of teaching five classes sometimes makes me feel like I’m going to buckle under the weight of so many voices, questions, faces, personalities, meetings, time frames, deadlines, etc.
I am functional, though, and I am doing well in my job and that is not something I could have said for myself prior to my diagnosis. Knowing has actually made the disorder tenable. Living with bipolar disorder feels surmountable now that I can name it, which is not surprising considering the storied weight of naming things. Sure, finding out crushed me for fear of judgment, and I am profoundly uncomfortable as I conclude this piece, knowing it will be out there in a way I haven’t yet let it be. But while saying it here doesn’t feel good, it does feel important: we walk among you, and we have, not are.