Since beginning my PhD in Anthropology, I’ve wrestled with how to navigate the politics of disclosure vis-à-vis my psychiatric diagnosis. I’ve been playing it safe by (mostly) keeping that part of my identity to myself. For many people, especially those with other marginalized identities, holding their mental health diagnosis to their chest is a mode of survival in cut throat environments and is protection from discrimination, social isolation, and exclusion. When I discovered scholars like Kay Rutherford Jamison (author of An Unquiet Mind), Emily Martin (author of Bipolar Expeditions) and Ruth C. White (who has written extensively on bipolar disorder), I became hopeful that I too could be open about my bipolar diagnosis. I saw that it could be an asset, rather than an obstacle in my academic career. However, I wonder how scholars negotiate the politics of disclosure in their personal and professional lives and at what point they decide to open up.
I can imagine that disclosing once I have achieved tenure or a certain level of seniority or notoriety carries much less risk than disclosing while I am still studying or climbing up the ranks. Disclosing later in my career could offset the damaging repercussions of stigma that result in being let go, demoted or discredited. But if I do the math — [years to degree] 6 + [yrs to find employment] + ? [yrs to get tenure or some other form of job security] 6> = 12+ years — I can’t wait that long!
You may be wondering why it’s so important for me to disclose my psychiatric diagnosis. Isn’t it a form of self-stigma? Aren’t I more than my illness? In any case, psychiatric labels are not real; they are social constructions, right? Well, living with bipolar disorder is as impactful to my identity and the way in which I navigate daily life as other facets of who I am, such as my race and gender. It colors my worldview, influences my choices, impacts my relationships, affects what I can do and what I cannot. While I don’t go around telling everyone I’m bipolar (except for when I’m manic when I tend to disclose a bit too much!), feeling like I cannot show up as my whole self makes me feel like I’m betraying myself. Like I’m living a lie. I feel closeted and endure great shame when I cannot speak my truth. It also provokes fears of rejection and abandonment.
Audre Lorde said it best in her essay The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action in which she writes about how crucial it is for us to speak up about what is important to us “even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood” (37). Breast cancer unsilenced Lorde. As she faced the possibility of death, Lorde realized that she would regret her silences more than the words she dared to say. Her admonition to speak my truth hunts me:
What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?
I know I cannot stay silent for over a decade. I don’t have time to hide an aspect of myself that has given me so much insight and wisdom as well as a sense of purpose and meaning. As a Black woman living with bipolar disorder, I know my voice and my story can help so many people, especially those in the Black community where mental health is so stigmatized. I want to use my knowledge and lived experience to ensure more mothers get the lifesaving care they need to safeguard their mental health in the perinatal period. I want to be able to say to someone who feels isolated and wants to give up on life, “You’re not crazy. I’ve been there. You’re not alone.” Lorde’s words resonate deeply:
[W]e fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live… And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.
While this blog is still new and the readership is small, I am going to practice writing my truth and building the tolerance to the fear of more people reading it. As I navigate coming back out into the post-pandemic world, I am also practicing showing up as my full self in all areas of my life. I’m hoping that the collective experience with mental health challenges during the pandemic has helped to destigmatize mental illness. I hope I am reentering a world that is a little safer for me to live honestly and openly. My last major manic depressive episode shattered my world so profoundly that I retreated into silence and invisibility. Even as I fear exposure in sharing now, I remember Lorde’s words, “Your silence will not protect you” and I know my silence won’t protect others either. So I conclude this post embracing Lorde’s example of courageous truth-telling:
I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.
A black and white picture of Audre Lorde, single-breasted post-mastectomy, wearing a floral turquoise purple-blue tunic and a short afro. A black dotted red halo frames her head as she stands against a floral yellow and turquoise background.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press. 36-40.