Far and away, the most frequently asked question I receive as a writer with bipolar and anxiety is, “How did you get to a place where you could be this open about your struggles?”
It’s usually followed with a question like, “Aren’t you scared?”
I used to be terrified. Like many folks with a mental illness, one of the first things we’re told is to keep it to ourselves. At times, I existed in a cloud of shame that followed me around wherever I went. But that’s just it – that’s exactly why I came out and became such a vocal advocate for my community. It’s because of that shame that I started talking about what I had been through. I was tired of feeling afraid, tired of feeling ashamed, and tired of seeing the stories of my community being told by people who just didn’t get it. I wanted to tell my own story and to reach people like me who needed to know, without a doubt, that they were not alone.
Yes, it’s scary to put yourself out there and tell the whole world – let alone family or friends – about what can be the darkest, most vulnerable part of our journeys. There are real risks involved, too, that people need to weigh when deciding who to tell about their illness(es) and when. Our safety, our security, our housing, and our jobs can all be at stake because mental illness, unfortunately, is a highly stigmatized status to hold in our society.
But when I weighed all of these risks, and I thought about my fourteen-year-old self, who was contemplating suicide because he felt utterly alone, I knew that I had an obligation to speak up. For me, if I could help make someone’s burden a little bit lighter by being outspoken about my illnesses, the benefits far outweighed the risks.
I remember that the first place I looked for help as a teen was not a guidance counselor, not a parent or guardian, not a friend. Instead, I turned to Google. I searched for things like, “Help, I want to die” and “I’m depressed and I don’t know what to do.” I remember, vividly, scouring the search results, looking for some kind of affirmation or something to hold onto.
The reality is that the stigma around mental health keeps us so silent that we’d rather ask Google what to do than ask our friends or family. We go it alone because we’re ashamed, we’re afraid, we’re confused, we’re overwhelmed, and we think that our struggles make us too much of a burden for others to deal with.
There was a time when Google knew more about my mental illnesses than my best friend did. After spending too many years feeling isolated, disconnected, and ashamed, I began to write about what I had been through. And, with time, that writing ceased to be a private exercise and instead, became the beginnings of a blog. That blog helped bring into sharp focus all of the reasons why being out as someone with bipolar and anxiety was the right decision for me.
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Why am I out?
Because I want to build community around mental illness, especially for those who, like myself, are transgender and also grapple with these illnesses.
Because, too many times, I’ve received emails that said, “You’re genderqueer and bipolar? I thought I was the only one.”
Because too many people think of folks with mental illness as anything but people – as criminals, or “psychos,” or burdens on society rather than fully human and deserving of every bit of compassion, respect, and dignity that all people should be afforded.
Because, when you take away the rights of people with mental illnesses – when you vote against important legislation or elect a politician who wants to strip us of the resources and support that we need – I want you to remember my face and remember my words.
Because visibility matters, and because I want teens to grow up in a world where, when they are searching for people who have lived through what they’re going through, they can find them.
Because a teenager sent me a letter that said, “I found you through Google. I’m trans and I have bipolar. I didn’t think I could be successful, but I look at everything you’re doing, and you make me believe in something.”
Because I want to create a safe space for others to use their voices, too, so that together, the collective vibration of our voices will be an undeniable force.
Because you cannot deny our personhood, our worth, our brilliance, or our power when we work together.
Because teens would rather tell me they’re suicidal through my Tumblr ask box than pick up the phone and call a hotline or a friend.
Because an article I wrote asking people not to ridicule someone with a mental illness was read in over 180 countries by millions of people around the world.
Because it was an article I never should have had to write in the first place.
Because no one with a mental illness should ever feel alone.
Because there is enough shame surrounding mental illness that we have to even consider whether or not to “come out.”
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Telling the world that I have bipolar disorder (and later, anxiety) was not an easy choice to make. Friends and family expressed concern, asking me whether I was sure I would want the word “bipolar” forever attached to my name for anyone in the world to see. Others told me it would be a career-ruining move that would haunt me for the rest of my professional life.
But in order for other people with mental illness to have a life – to have careers, to have a future – they need to know that they are not alone, and that others now thrive with these same illnesses that threatened to pull them under. When seeing is believing, visibility is everything. If living visibly means that I give someone with a mental illness the chance to keep going, I will keep the word “bipolar” forever, and I will proudly do the work that I’m doing, even if it means that a lousy potential employer puts my resume in the garbage.
There’s something poetic about the fact that Google was the first place I found people like me, and that now, I am the person that people are finding when they search for help. Oh, how the tables have turned!
Even on the days when I feel afraid and question my decision to go public with my disorders, I remember what it felt like to turn the internet upside-down as a teen, looking for someone, anyone, who knew how I felt. If I can be that person for someone, the link that opens up their world and keeps them going, it will all have been worth it.
I’m grateful that I’m carrying the torch now after years of fighting to overcome these illnesses that tried to take my life. And I’ll proudly carry that torch until the stigma around mental illness finally goes up in flames.
[Headline image: The black-and-white photograph shows the eyes, nose, and cheeks of a person who is looking to the side and down. The right side of the person’s face is in shadow; the left side of the face is criss-crossed by the shadows from a Venetian blind.]