Monday, January 26, 2009
Something major has happened in the ten years since I've been diagnosed with bipolar. Back then, it was an illness you concealed. It was a shame you hid. Friends, family, and colleagues had a way of only seeing the diagnosis, and what they chose to see was not good.
To disclose your diagnosis was to risk everything: friends, relationships, livelihood.
Then something started to change. Over time, bipolar morphed into something that could be "cool" to have. Mind you, those struggling mightily with their illness saw nothing cool about it. Neither did their suffering families. But the flip side was the stigma was diminishing, and this had to be good news.
Part of the trend had to do with the recent recognition of bipolar II and various forms of "soft" bipolar. In other words, bipolar wasn't an all-or-nothing disease. You could be a "little bit" bipolar. And a little bit was cool. Even the way-out-there bipolars could make a claim to cool.
Van Gogh, Hemingway, Woolf - how cool was that? Okay, they all killed themselves. But maybe if they were alive today - the thinking goes - that wouldn't have happened.
Over the years, I have urged individuals to embrace their entire illness - the good as well as the bad. If we simply viewed ourselves as patients who suffered, I kept saying, we would always wind up stuck well short of recovery.
Last night, I went to Facebook and searched under "bipolar." If the word appeared anywhere on a profile page that a member created, Facebook would find it for me.
My results revealed "more than 500" finds. I suspect many thousands. There were a great many examples to choose from, but let's go with three:
First, there were those whose lives seemed part of a weird Andy Warhol movie. These weren't exactly people you would be seeking out as Facebook friends. Then again, their bipolar credentials carried an air of exclusivity, as if to challenge the world. In the past, these people would have been shamed for failing to meet the standards of society. Now, there was an air of pride and defiance. They weren't about to please you. You had to please them. Too bad if you weren't good enough.
Then there were young hotties who advertised themselves as a bit on the wild side. Most of them, I suspect, had never seen a psychiatrist. But they proudly proclaimed themselves as "semi-bipolar" or "must be bipolar." Forget for the time being the dangers of romanticizing one of the worst illnesses on the planet. Instead, focus on the fact that these young women - part of a new generation - view bipolar as something positive, as a credential they can use (and misuse) to make new friends.
Finally, there were those I like to call bipolar role models. The image that stuck with me is that of a very attractive woman in her thirties or forties. She is in a smart pants suit, in stylish heels, posing in front of her Cadillac Escalade. I'm bipolar, is the underlying message, and not only am I making it in your world, I'm really kicking ass.
These are just some of the new faces of bipolar. They are a reflection of a changing world, a world that they (we) are changing. It is the face of a new bipolar cool.
A new generation - the Facebook Generation - is out there, in your face. They are not hiding in the closet. For good or bad, they are wearing their bipolar as if it were something to be embraced and envied rather than an entity to be feared and despised.
The rest of society is likely to embrace this change, as well, but possibly at the expense of being indifferent to our pain.
In the meantime, we are looking at tons of upside. Here's hoping ...