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One of my new readers brought up the topic of disclosing the fact that one has bipolar to various people. I can tell you what I have done and give you some cheap, free advice on what I might do if I had it to do over again.
Starting in high school and college, I didn’t even know I had depression or bipolar. I knew I had some serious problems but wasn’t sure what it was. If I missed an event or class or whatever, I would tell people I was “sick”. This seemed to work fine.
I was officially diagnosed with depression at age 26 or so. I told no one. I was working as a school principal and knew it wasn’t a good idea to disclose. But I was crying all the time and wound up resigning. Some people probably figured it out anyway.
I stayed home and raised kids. I had very long good periods of mental health. During the bad times when I was sick, I DID have an episode of severe kidney trouble and I just kept on using that as an excuse when I needed to miss something. It seemed to work.
I was diagnosed with bipolar at age 40. I went into full hiding at that point. I was “sick” a lot.
About three years ago, I decided “the hell with this”. I came out of the closet.
Let me tell you about the different groups in my life and how I have handled it. There are three categories 1) those who don’t know (I tell them I am “sick” if there is a problem) 2) those who think I have depression 3) those who know I have bipolar and what that entails.
CLOSE FRIENDS: They all know I have bipolar. I don’t disclose this until about the sixth “date” or so. I start by telling them I suffer from depression. Everyone gets and accepts that. Then later I tell them I have bipolar depression. I’ve had no problems with this method. Many of them want more information, so I explain what I can and refer them to websites. I don’t feel like I’ve lost friends because of this. I DO feel I have lost one or two friends because I cancelled on them too much due to being depressed.
NEW FRIENDS: I don’t let people know right away, unless I meet them in a mental health setting, like a support group. I don’t feel like people need to know unless it’s going to really affect them. If I need to cancel on a new friend, I might tell them I have a migraine or something similar.
NEIGHBORS: We don’t know a ton of our neighbors, but one group we’ve known 20 years. They have no idea. I just go reclusive when I get sick. Because we don’t nose in each other’s business, no one pays any attention. The other neighbors we like are pretty self-absorbed. They do their own thing. I might tell this group I have a headache if I had to miss something.
RELATIVES: I have come out gradually to all of the relatives in town. My two elderly aunts who live out of state don’t know. I wasn’t sure they’d understand what I was talking about. My relatives have basically been supportive, some more than others. The ones who were jerks before I disclosed are still jerks, and the nice ones are still nice.
DOCTORS: Other than mental health care doctors, I do tend to tell all other health care providers. First off, they have my drug history which gives them a clue. Also, I tend to get better treatment (in my opinion). People are a little kinder and they look at me like I might do something scary if they aren’t nice. Hey, I’ll take any advantage I can.
CHURCH: I am gradually disclosing here. It’s a fairly new church so we don’t know everyone yet. The church secretary knows, the pastor knows, and the prayer chain leader knows. If it comes up, I would tell anyone else there. My women’s support group knows and they have been incredibly supportive.
MY HUSBAND’S FRIENDS: This again has been a gradual process. A few of his friends have mental illness in their families so he told them first. They have been super understanding. He tells other people as it comes up and as it is needed. His boss knows just in case he needs to stay home with me for some reason. (My husband is semi-retired, works from home, but sometimes travels). Sometimes I go on trips with my husband and one of his friends. For sure, these guys know. I find men to be very accepting and understanding.
WORK: Uh, no. I don’t ever recommend telling work. The reason I have felt free to come out of the closet is because I don’t work anymore. It had to be a big secret before.
I have heard so many stories of people disclosing at work only to find themselves being watched very carefully and let go at the slightest infraction. I know there are federal laws and all to protect us, but it all sounds like a mess. I never told anyone at work I even felt depressed. I was teaching school as my last job and of course gossip spreads like wildfire at a school. As I got sicker, I used the old “kidney” routine.
There are two women I worked with at this school that I am still friends with. One of them has moved to another school. I came out and told her I have been suffering from depression. I don’t think she made the connection that that is why I quit work. The other friend is a pretty close friend but she still works at the school.
Now it’s been two years since I taught there and they have incredible turnover so it’s not as though many people would remember me. But I still don’t want the remaining people to know I have bipolar. I am not sure why. Maybe because some of these people are darned mean. So this friend I have that is still working there does not know I have bipolar. She thinks I have depression brought on by my kidney troubles. (Yes, I know this is an asshole way to handle this.)
Anyway, you can see this disclosure thing is complicated. But I do feel better every time I tell someone. I haven’t lost many friends (if any), and really if someone leaves it’s their problem. But full disclosure is something to be well thought out.