The return to in-person classes in Fall 2021 also marked the return of other cherished campus traditions, including meeting new people and grabbing drinks. One night in mid-September, that’s exactly what I was doing.
I could feel the alcohol in my chest before anywhere else, a growing knot of warmth like I’d just swallowed embers. Next was my face, heating and flushing bright pink in places my blush brush had never touched. I didn’t need a mirror to know that my eyes were glassy and bright, painted by the ceramic glaze of drink. “You’re the world’s cheapest date,” a new friend teased, gesturing to my nearly-full glass. “Must be my meds,” I responded.
“Oh my gosh, are you on lithium?” She blurted, like my lived experiences were just another multiple-choice Kahoot! in her Neuroscience class and she was racing to be the first to answer.
The dancing lights and colours snapped into focus and I felt the sudden chill and clumsiness in my hands. If she knows it’s lithium that has me swooning in my seat after two sips of my Aperol Spritz, her Neuroscience course has definitely also covered what lithium is prescribed for. (Here’s your bonus mark: lithium is a mood stabilizer for the treatment of manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder.)
I was sober enough to grasp the implications of this change in the conversation. My new friends barely knew me beyond my class schedule and now here they were, at the doorstep of one of the most painful, personal parts of my life. Do I have to assure them I’m not crazy? How much do I have to tell them?
While I can speak candidly about my diagnosis and my experiences now, I know that’s a luxury hard-won by years of intensive therapy and difficult self-work. Though I enjoy a robust sense of self-acceptance now, I’m still protective of the version of myself who was consumed by shame and self-loathing.
One of the reasons I’m so reluctant to disclose my diagnosis is because I don’t want people to see me – and everything I do – through a lens of bipolar disorder. I don’t want people to interpret my normal reactions, emotions, and mood swings by attributing them to a condition that I manage so well I often forget I even have it. I can be chatty, spontaneous, and eclectic without being manic. Being an excitable, emotional person is my personality, not my pathology. I can have strong emotions in response to big events or stirring experiences, just like everyone else. Feeling sad over a break-up is feeling sad, not being depressed.
“I feel like a different person every time,” I said another time, referencing how I felt 2021 had been a year of intense personal change and growth. “Maybe it’s just your medication levels fluctuating!” My friend said. When she started to flounder and tried to tell me she was being funny – tried to tell me how I was supposed to respond, like that was something she had the power to dictate – I knew I didn’t have to agree with her.
Maybe I come across as touchy, but I don’t see the humour in using someone’s health as a punchline. I am not my diagnosis, and to conflate the two is harmful, reductive, and frankly irritating.
And by the way, the only way you would know if my medication levels were fluctuating is if I’d have to run to the bathroom more often. My kidneys never let me forget that lithium, in any other dose, is a poison.
Navigating disclosure is delicate. Discretion isn’t inauthenticity.
Telling someone about a mental health diagnosis can feel like a coming out, like the summer drive to Dairy Queen when I told my mom over Reese’s Blizzards that the “Alex” I fell head-over-heels for in first year was actually short for “Alexandra.”
When I feel that familiar fear of judgement creeping in – and I feel it now, just writing this – I think of what my friend, Colton, told me when I first opened up to him about my diagnosis. I was tearful and fearful, trying to anticipate his questions and wondering how much sharing was the helpful context and how much sharing was traumatizing. We had been walking a wooded trail for over an hour, long enough that the seemingly-endless August daylight was beginning to wane and the empty pizza boxes we were carrying seemed to grow heavier. Over the hour, I had started – and abandoned – multiple attempts at telling him what had happened.
Finally, Colton told me, “Look…whatever it is, you don’t have to be ashamed. The people who love you will always see you for you.”
That might seem like a simple truth, but it was momentous for me to hear after a painful and alienating year of psychiatrists who treated me like a list of symptoms and side effects instead of a person and friends who acted like my diagnosis was a death sentence.
Even writing this, I feel a fear of judgement. I feel the weight of a stigma that assures me that my safety and self-preservation is in my silence. Ever since my body adjusted to the initial landslide of meds, restoring an animated range of expression to my previously mask-like face and shedding the extra 40 pounds at a pace far more slowly than they accumulated, I’ve been able to live without anyone knowing. I’ve excused my lithium tremors as “caffeine shakes,” smiling apologetically at lab partners with a sheepish nod at a late night. Whenever it comes up that I’m graduating 2 years late, I explain how I switched my major from Psychology to English. I often talk about my time as a Psych major. Rarely do I talk about my time in a psych ward.
Digitally is one of the few times my footprints precede me. I imagine myself, years in the future, hands shaking as I’m seated at a table. Sometimes, it’s an office table, and the person across from me is an interviewer. Other times, it’s a restaurant table, and the person across from me is some date I’m smitten with. Both times, I’m keenly aware of how much I want them to like me. I wonder if knowing my diagnosis will change anything, distort what they expect of me and how they interpret how I act.
I don’t know if I’ll be as brave then as I am at 23, typing in my room on a Sunday in January, but something I’ve learned from this year already is that life responds to courage. I don’t know if my continued silence would help my self-preservation but I already know that it would entrench my shame.
Maybe I’m exaggerating how much the Internet can tell people about you and I’m definitely exaggerating my place, but…
To my future employers, if you somehow ever read this: I hope you believe that accessibility in academia expands rather than dilutes it. To my current and future friends and partners, if you somehow ever read this, I hope you see me for me.
So hi, everyone. If we’re ever out to drinks and I’m a bit of a lightweight, it’s because I take lithium. It’s a mood stabilizer and it’s really no big deal. I take 600 mg at night, divided across two pink-and-white capsules, with the same cheerful indifference that I take my morning (gummy) multi-vitamin. The pills are honestly kind of cute and match my room aesthetic. My Spotify playlists can probably tell you more about me than my Shoppers prescription. I have 69 playlists but I still manage to listen to the same 12 songs on repeat, Taylor Swift and Caroline Polachek just get me. No, I’m okay with what’s in my glass. Go ahead, you can have the rest of the pitcher.