Updated: Oct 14, 2021
Next year I will have been a registered nurse for 30 years, and I have been involved with healthcare for even longer. Throughout that time, I have worked hard to support people with mental health conditions as a registered nurse, educator and volunteer worker supporting the homeless.
I, therefore, find it sad that up until now, I have closely guarded my own diagnosis. While I have been willing to discuss my physical health with friends, family, and close work colleagues, that is not the case when it comes to my mental health.
The truth is that I have lived with bipolar II disorder since it was triggered at the age of 18, and I am very proud of all that I have achieved despite some of the ups (less extreme than with bipolar I) and downs (very low – and more so than with bipolar I) that come with this invisible disability.
"Despite recent media efforts to remove the taboo surrounding mental health, my experience indicates that it is still there"
As well as my academic and professional qualifications, I have raised two wonderful sons and managed not to send my lovely husband running for the hills in the 34 years that we have been together. I also have a wonderful wider family and very lovely friends.
So why do I tend to keep it quiet?
Despite recent media efforts to remove the taboo surrounding mental health, my experience indicates that it is still there.
I know that I am not weak, but I know that is not a view shared by all. I have found it difficult in the past to see the expression on people's faces when I tell them. Or notice how discussions about exciting new developments become somehow distanced from me. Or how the tone and pitch of people's voices change when they talk to me. Or how people stop smiling at me when they see me in the corridor or they can no longer quite make eye contact.
I understand that I may sometimes experience paranoia and that may explain some of this.
But I am not paranoid all the time, and I know that at least some of my observations
are accurate. For example, I remember after one relapse, an ex-colleague told me that they thought I had been off sick because I had cancer. Their face fell when I told them about my bipolar and the relapse from which I had just recovered. “Oh”, they told me, “I'd probably have found cancer easier to deal with.”
That conversation is true, so perhaps my reticence has something to do with protecting myself from other people's responses. But it also helps to perpetuate the taboo.
I am getting older now, and if this year has taught me nothing else, it is to know what is important in life – my health and my family and friends. I also get a lot of satisfaction from my career and the amazing and kind people I have worked with.
But I can only continue to enjoy thi
s if I stay well, and sometimes I won't be. Like now. I'm having a (very small) bit of a blip if I'm honest. Some people know, but others will not because unlike a broken leg, it is not something I would usually share.
But I know that with time and support I will soon be better. I will not get that without telling people and giving them the opportu
nity to reach out in the same way that they would if I was sitting with my leg propped up on a cushion.
I recently took the decision to share what would become an early version of this column with my Facebook friends. Although I knew that anyone I trusted enough to be my Facebook friend would by necessity be a good, decent person, I still felt nervous sharing this. So why did I take what felt like such a significant leap?
Why did I do something that made me feel so vulnerable?
Why did I put myself in a position where I was nervously checking to see what, if any, the response to my post would be?
It was because I knew that keeping silent was perpetuating the taboo, and that while I was well enough to use my voice, it was time for me to make my own small contribution to raising awareness and understanding of the wide spectrum of mental health conditions on behalf of others who may not be able to speak for themselves.
I will let you know what response I got in a future column.
Until next time,
*First published in the Nursing Times on 18th March 2021 and reproduced here with kind permission.