There are varying sources of advice on whether or not to disclose a mental illness to family, friends, and employers. I disclosed to my 2 closest family members – my husband and my mom nearly right away after my *final* diagnosis of bipolar II. I have had other diagnoses in the past that I did not trust for one reason or another (generally by doctors that I felt knew me for too short a time or couldn’t explain personal examples of why I fit their diagnosis). This time was different because I trust my current doctor, and because we journeyed on the diagnosis track together for 2 years before he “labeled me.” We collected data over those years that backed up the diagnosis. Plus, my doctor supported my in seeking a second opinion from another well-respected psychiatrist that has a professional interest focused on bipolar II. Too many doctors had been playing too casually with my life for too many years prior to this *final* diagnosis.
Now that I am confident and fairly adjusted to the reality that I have bipolar II, I have been cautious about who to tell and how much to tell them. I gathered a small group of trusted family (6 people) and had a serious meeting for about 2.5 hours. I covered personal experiences, symptoms, barriers, myths, frustrations, etc. They tend to be people that stay mostly on the surface, and I asked them to start genuinely asking me how I am doing. It’s been about a year, and they still have not been able to master this skill. I feel glad that they know because they are more supportive of my husband when I’m less well, but they haven’t come to my aid in a noticeable way.
I chose which friends to disclose to by asking about each of them, “how could disclosure to this person benefit me (or harm me)? Who should I disclose to first so I can get used to the idea of expanding my support circle without making myself feel vulnerable? In order, I told:
- Friend 1 because she is closest to being family without actually being family and could be an advocate or physically there if I needed her.
- Friend 2 because she is awesome at sympathy and making me feel better.
- Friend 3 because she is analytical and knows a lot about the mental health sector. She will tell me the truth.
- Friend 4 because we are friends from a former job, and she can help me navigate the politics of my industry and be a sounding board or mentor if I need help.
I think I phased this subconsciously as a test to see if any of my friends would be untrustworthy or weird towards me. Each of them has seen me in varying states of wellness, and I told the one that has seen me the most unwell first. She was excellent and treats me no different (in the good ways) but asks me kind questions about my bipolar when the timing is right. She has been an invaluable source of support simply because I was able to exhale after telling someone. We are not in super-close contact, but I know she is someone I can call if the “shitake” hits the fan, and she will know some background info that will help her to help me.
The next friend I told had a similar response. The third friend I told ended up having some rough patches in her own life shortly after my disclosure, and she has not been a support. Positively, though, I have been able to offer some basic support to her. Helping her has helped me feel needed again in a world that pretty much forgot about me. Finally, I told another friend this week who I trust but who runs in the same professional circle as me. We have known each other for about 5 years, and I know she will respect my privacy. I feel like she can be a mentor and resource for when I have professional difficulties and can give me some “on the ground advice” for how to handle my illness both as a friend and as a professional.
So far, I do not regret telling others about my bipolar, but time will tell. I think the key to telling others has been because I feel more comfortable with my own diagnosis, how to handle it and because I have been without a depressive episode for 2 months now.