I just found out I have a disability. I knew that I had a mental illness, obviously, but what I didn’t know what that bipolar disorder is among the illnesses and disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. For those that may not be aware, the goal of the ADA is to provide protections and accommodations for those with, well, disabilities. It’s why things like wheelchair ramps and handicap-accessible hotel rooms exist. It’s there to make it easier to cope. I knew physical disabilities and injuries were covered as well as things like hearing and vision problems, AIDS, cancer, etc., but it hadn’t occurred to me that I was also qualified because the US government recognizes that dealing with mental illness is a struggle and that we could use a little help.
I think the main reason it hadn’t occurred to me was because I would have to tell someone. If we want the help we deserve, that means we have to divulge that information to people outside our circle of trust. The only real way the ADA helps those of us with mental illness is with employment-related issues. Applications can’t be rejected because of mental illness. We can’t be fired for mental illness. Our employers have to make “reasonable accommodations” that might include adjusting work hours or assignments. Still, in order to benefit from these things, (which can actually be more beneficial than you might think) a minimum of two people at work will know that you have bipolar disorder, your boss and human resources. That makes a lot of us uncomfortable, myself included.
This is going to sound ironic seeing as how this is a blog to which the entire world has access, but work with me. I don’t want to tell people I have bipolar disorder. I don’t want to see the “trying not to react” reaction when I tell them and worry about whether or not they will start viewing me differently. While awareness has increased recently, there are still myths surrounding mental illness and they absolutely cause prejudice, even if it’s implicit.
Despite best efforts, people may think you are faking having an illness, or using it to get attention. After all, they can’t see the effects. Those thoughts put us in an “other” group. We are no longer part of the “normal” population. Negative thoughts are more likely to rise when your symptoms show through. Are you genuinely having a hard time at work or are you using your illness to justify being cranky? Did you really call in sick because you’re too depressed to get out of bed or do you just want to be lazy and watch tv all day? It’s hard to predict who will feel this way or indeed if anyone is being judgmental at all. What if I’m projecting my fears of stigma onto others and they don’t have any problems with my disorder? It’s a fine line to walk and takes a lot of energy to walk it.
So what am I supposed to do about it? Well, I tend to do my best to hide it. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable and I don’t want to be treated like a china doll. Hiding it comes with its own consequences. It takes a lot more effort to get through the day pretending everything is fine. We have an allotted amount of energy for the day and when it’s spent, it’s spent. This may mean calling up friends to cancel plans. Again. It may mean having take out instead of cooking a family dinner. Again.
Having bipolar disorder is a struggle on its own. It’s even harder because you can’t see it.