I Have Bipolar Disorder, And No, I’m Not Crazy

Woman’s Day magazine recently published three essays addressing stigma and how it impacted the lives of three different women.  One of those essays was written by Heidi Nordin.  Woman’s Day can be found  HERE.

Heidi Nordin, 45, St. Paul, Minnesota

Several years ago, shortly after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was chatting at an Easter celebration when a family member turned to me and said, “You know, I don’t think mental illness is real. I don’t know why you bother taking medication.”

I was so dumbstruck that I just turned and walked away. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had made a mistake in telling him in the first place. When I was first diagnosed in 2000, I didn’t tell anyone for the first year because I was afraid they would think less of me. When I finally told my family, they initially seemed to be receptive.

For the most part, my condition is well controlled. But I have several episodes every year, and each one can last for months. (Medication does help, but I often have to change doses and switch to different ones.) When I’m severely depressed, I don’t want to leave the house. Reading or even getting out of bed seems like too much effort. When I’m in a manic phase, I become very impulsive. Once I bought an $8,000 motorcycle that I didn’t know how to ride. I’ve since taken lessons and I love it, but that was a lot of money to spend without really thinking about it.

Given how I feel when I’m experiencing an episode, I can’t believe that some people don’t accept that mental illness is real. Plus, research shows that chemical imbalances in the brain cause this illness. It’s not something you bring on yourself; why would anyone choose to live or feel this way?

Still, I’m cautious about whom I confide in. Once when I was on the way to a restaurant with a group of friends, we passed a homeless person. One of them said something like, “Did you see that crazy guy?” In my head, I was thinking about how that person probably has a mental illness and needs help. But if I’d said anything, they probably would’ve thought that there was something wrong with me too.

For similar reasons, I’ve told very few coworkers about my condition. Most of the time I can make it through the workday OK. If I’m really depressed I’ll take a sick day, though once I missed a week of work because I was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. In the past I worried that I could lose my job if more people found out about my condition, even though I know that’s illegal. I also worried that colleagues would think I was less competent, but I realized I’ve already proven myself. I’ve been at my current job (in an IT department for a large company) for about five years, and I supervise 10 people.

Many people think that everyone with mental illness is flaky or weird, but the truth is, in most respects I’m just like everyone else. I’ve worked since I was 18 years old, and I work really hard. I have a lot of friends, and I love going to the movies, museums and Minnesota Twins games.

Since getting involved with the mental health organization NAMI in 2005, I’ve been trying to be more open about my condition. I help out with NAMIWalks (a big annual fundraiser) and represent NAMI on the Minnesota Mental Health Advisory Council. But the scariest thing I’ve ever done was give a talk at a NAMI event. I had never done public speaking before, and my hands were shaking as I stepped up to the podium. I looked at the crowd of about 250 people staring at me and I almost froze, but I took a deep breath and just dove into it. As I started speaking I felt myself relax a little, and when I finished, everyone applauded. I thought to myself, I could get used to this. 

Bipolar disorder, also called manic depression, is a mental illness in which people experience extreme highs (mania) and lows (depression). It may be caused by a combination of brain chemistry, genetics and your environment (for example, it’s more common in people who’ve lost a parent at a young age). Finding the right treatment—usually a combination of medication and talk therapy—can be difficult, but it enables people with the disorder to lead productive lives. Well-known figures who have bipolar disorder include Jane Pauley, Richard Dreyfuss and Carrie Fisher. Learn more at NAMI.org, NIMH.NIH.gov and DBSAlliance.org.

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