So many people dream of fame, fortune, fast cars and fancy homes. For so long now, I have dreamed of freedom — freedom to be my full true self without judgment, shame or ridicule.
So, who am I, do you ask? I am a 33-year-old female mental health counselor (and former teacher) who also has a mental health condition. I have bipolar II, and for as long as I can remember, I have had to hide part of myself because so much of society stigmatizes, judges and condemns those who have mental health conditions.
It is not that I need to wear a sign around my neck reading “Bipolar II right here,” announcing it to every stranger I meet, but do I want to live in a world where, if that was my choosing, I could do so without being judged or shamed into the darkness. I imagine that many discriminated parties understand where I am coming from and might even be saying, “At least you do get to hide it.” But that is just it — I am tired of hiding. I have spent my life living in the shadows and playing a part the world can accept.
Many people in my life are aware of my condition and accept me — for all of me. I am greatly appreciative of all the support I have received, but it is no longer enough. I want, I demand, more! I want to be able to go to work and say I have bipolar II and not have the room go silent in fear or lack of understanding. I do not want a bad day, simply because I am human and have bad days, to turn into whispers of “Is she manic?” or “Is she depressed?”
For my entire working life, I have kept my condition to myself out of fear of persecution, out of fear of my judgment being called into question because of my condition. In all those years, never once have I put a student in jeopardy (as a counselor, I am placed in a school as well) because I am fully self-aware and manage my condition as I would any other medical condition. On days when I am in a depressive episode or manic episode and am not feeling well enough to do my job, I take a sick day, just as anyone with any other medical condition would need to do.
Those with mental health conditions can thrive if they receive proper care and treatment management. In fact, there are many who have thrived throughout the ages despite having less availability to treatment than is available in the 21st century. Beethoven, Michelangelo and Abraham Lincoln (to mention only a few) all reportedly had mental health conditions, and they accomplished amazing, history-altering feats. Why then is there still such stigma surrounding mental health disorders?
Admittedly, things are better today. In the 1800s, people who were even suspected of hysterics (mostly women) were locked away. In the 21st century, we have many people who openly speak about having mental health disorders and various organizations (the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, county mental health boards, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, etc.) that work tirelessly to support those with mental health conditions and their loved ones. Even what I do, serving as an intervention therapist, was not heard of as recently as the 1990s and early 2000s when I was in school.
When I began my journey, at 12 years old, no one knew how to help me. I was consistently described as a “freak” in my school, by students and adults alike. My parents tried to help, going to every medical doctor they could think of to discern why I was randomly fainting. It was not until years later that I was told I had conversion disorder (one’s system converts psychological symptoms to physical symptoms) and not until I was 23 that a psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar II. And I was 29 before receiving proper treatment that truly turned my life around.
Ironically, it was not a professional who discovered my miracle treatment. It was me, as a counseling graduate student, doing a paper on electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Now, coming up on my four-year anniversary of receiving ECT, I am at a new place in my treatment.
I am a mental health professional myself now and experiencing lengths of stability not previously known to me. Even when I do have an episode, they are far shorter and less severe than they ever were before. Most important, I love who I am and am damn proud of myself. It is at this juncture that I want more — not for myself, but for the world of mental health. I am using my newfound stability and happiness to ask, “How can I make a difference?”
I recognize how blessed I am to have found a treatment plan and team that have helped me become the best version of myself, but I want the same thing for all who have mental health conditions, and I want it without bias. As well as I am, I still cannot go into work, sit at the lunch table and talk about my week being difficult because of a medication change for my bipolar. Well, I could, but the ramifications would be costly. For those who doubt my claim and say there are laws against that, let’s be honest. Yes, on paper, there are laws against discrimination and bias. But that does not mean that cases of discrimination and bias no longer take place on a daily basis against every “protected” group.
The fact is, in America, if you are not the “norm,” there are many who look to remove your rights as a citizen, as a person, as a human being. This can no longer be the case, and mental health needs to join the movements rising up. Those of us living with mental health conditions need to demand our right not to be judged and not to be deemed anything less than ALL of who we are. It is true that we need help, but no one goes through life without needing help. With proper treatment and active participation in that treatment, there is no reason that we cannot thrive.
Recognition and moving forward
I have rarely said this out loud. Only a chosen few have heard what I am now going to publish willingly. I think it is in part due to my bipolar that I am so creative. There is something that happens that I truly do believe stems from my condition that allows me to think at the speed I think and write while envisioning my final product (this certainly didn’t hurt during pursuit of the three master’s degrees and one bachelor’s I have earned). It also creates an empathy that allows me to place myself in the moment with people and feel with them, for them, as them.
It is true that this empathy, when I was young and did not understand what seemed an overwhelming amount of feelings, caused me a lot of pain. In return, I caused much pain to myself. But through the receipt of empathy from others and the receipt of caring treatment, I have learned how to hone those feelings and use them in my career as a counselor. I have turned my empathy into my very own “superpower” to help others who are in pain. I receive no greater joy than the work I perform as a counselor for adolescents. First as a teacher and now as a counselor to adolescents in a school, I am privileged to get to turn all I have been through into something truly meaningful.
Again though, it is not enough. Change needs to happen in this society, and I want — no, I need — to be a part of it. Not for political reasons but for humane reasons. I am a human being hurting because I do not have the ability to be my full true self. I have come to a place where I am now proud of who I am, but still I feel I cannot go into society and share my true self — and I want to.
No one should feel they have to hide a part of themselves because it does not fit the accepted “norm.” Now is the time to come together and demand change. Not just for the mental health world, but for all who feel they have to live in the shadows. Support change not because of your political party but because it is the right thing to do for all human beings.
Related reading: ACA Virtual Conference Experience keynote speaker Bassey Ikpi also shared her journey with bipolar II disorder. Read more in our coverage of her keynote address.
Caitlin Regan is a 33-year-old living with bipolar II disorder. She was diagnosed in 2012 and has been living successfully in treatment. She receives electroconvulsive therapy and participates in cognitive behavior therapy as her treatment plan. She is a residential therapist in an adolescent addiction treatment facility. Contact her on her mental health support Instragram account: @caitlins_counseling_corner.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.