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To Tell or Not to Tell

Posted Aug 17 2008 9:12am
To tell or not to tell, that is the question.  Over the last few weeks I’ve had a few discussions surrounding the topic of informing people in my life about my diagnosis and whether it is beneficial or not, so I thought I would write about it because I wrestle with this question daily and I have also shared my situation with a few people so far in my life.

Like anything that is considered taboo, bipolar disorder holds a perception within its name that when released on the average ear it is feared, misunderstood and bent completely out of context.  For the average person bipolar disorder has no real personal relationship to their lives and the only referral point that these people have to the disorder is social gossip and what the media and movies have indirectly provided them, which in most cases are extreme stories used for selling purposes and not to educate on the actual reality or spectrum of the disorder.  They rarely hear about the million-plus people who have been diagnosed with the disorder that function relatively normally in daily life.  They rarely hear about the benefits that bipolar disorder can bring to an individual’s creativity, insight and drive. They rarely hear about the successful scientists, philosophers, businesspeople, artists and politicians who lived with bipolar disorder, but contributed enormously to the world. Keeping this in mind, you must evaluate your situation carefully and consider what is in your best interests before revealing your disorder to a largely misinformed world.

When considering telling people that you’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder there is no clear answer on whether you should or not.  Everyone’s situation in life is very different and what might be beneficial for one person may be the demise for another.  It is unfortunate that sharing this type of information needs to be considered so carefully, but for your own sake it truly does need to be considered carefully.  Bipolar disorder does have a stigma attached to it and people will see you differently once you tell them. You need to consider the impact that sharing this information may have and decide whether or not that is what you want. Ask yourself how sharing this information will help you and if you can’t find answers to how it might help then maybe it is a better idea not to say anything for now.

In most cases if you are comfortable with your family or close friends, these are the people who are easiest and safest to open up to.  Of course they may be shocked by your diagnosis, but that shock usually turns to unconditional caring and love that is very helpful as a support network to help you manage your disorder. I believe that it is important to have at least a few personal people in your life to talk to about your thoughts and mood because they act as a balancing mechanism when you might be a little off balance.  A good example is when you get into a pattern of negative thinking while depressed, sharing your thoughts with these people can be very beneficial because they can help put things in proper perspective and release some of the built-up tension from the downward spiral of depression.

Telling people outside of your family and close friends is where things become a little more difficult and must be approached cautiously.  The first group of people that comes to mind outside of family and close friends is your employer and co-workers.  This is your bread and butter and damaging your working relationship can not only be devastating for you livelihood, but for your mental health as well.  These people probably already know that something is a little off with you because of your past behavior, but they probably attribute this to your personality and consider it quirky parts of who you are.  Well, they are right.  These are quirky parts of who you are, but for some reason there is a difference in perception of these being quirky parts of who you are and these behaviors stemming from bipolar disorder.  Even though you are the same person before and after, revealing your diagnosis changes everything.  They will now see everything you do stemming from bipolar disorder.  Telling your employer must be calculated very carefully and I would not suggest telling them unless you strongly believe that they will understand and support you.

If you can trust your employer then telling them can have its benefits. This can include a better understanding of your situation during difficult times, sick leave, reduction or balancing of workload to reduce stress and better perspective/understanding of possible inappropriate behavior. Many larger organizations and government offices with human resource departments have included policies and support networks for people suffering from mental health problems, which is a huge step in the right direction.

Anyone outside of the above people need to be evaluated on a case by case basis. It can be useful to tell close co-workers (if they can be trusted) because it can help them have a better understanding and perspective of who you are and what you are sometimes going through. You spend a lot of time with these people and it might be helpful to your situation if they can understand your behavior better.  I know I sometimes go through bouts of depression and become disengaged at work.  Before I informed my close co-workers they were taking my disengagement personally and thought I was upset with them, but now they understand that this has nothing to do with them and will usually pass after a few weeks. Also, you should expect a few possible reactions from people you might tell. I’ve experienced three distinct reactions so far and they include fearfulness, overcompensation and acceptance.  Fearfulness is just that - fearfulness, overcompensation is when they treat you like you cannot do anything for yourself anymore and acceptance, my favorite, is when they empathize with what your going through, but continue to treat you relatively the same as before you told them but with a better understanding.

It is unfortunate that revealing bipolar disorder needs to be considered so carefully, but until it is accepted in the mainstream as just another aspect in the spectrum of being human then it will remain hidden in the shadows of daily life. The reality for reaching this mainstream acceptance is kind of a catch 22 though because in order for bipolar disorder to become mainstream and accepted, people suffering from it need to speak out, but by speaking out you potentially face being persecuted for the natural biological functioning of your brain because it does not function exactly like the brains of the majority.  I’ve personally told my employer, co-workers, close friends and family, but other than that I will remain an anonymous voice of bipolar disorder until the world realizes that the disorder can be managed successfully and that there are huge benefits to having bipolar minds in this world.

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