Being Bipolar – Compensating for Perceived Incompetence

hiding bipolar

The bipolar burble welcomes guest author Stephanie of Mommy vs. Madness. Today Stephanie talks about something I can certainly relate to, the concept that stereotypically, those with bipolar disorder are nothing but crazy and so are to be disregarded. Stephanie talks about the cost of fighting this stigma.

Fitting in is hard. Fitting when you are bipolar is harder. Most people can fit in by adorning themselves in the latest shoes, bags or clothes. Others may compensate by engaging in witty conversations, bragging about their job accomplishments or their children. Being bipolar, I feel the need to compensate for my perceived incompetence. I feel that in order for me to fit in, I have to prove just how sane I am. For me to accomplish this I feel I must be smart, I must be funny and most importantly I must be calm and rational at all times.

Being Diagnosed with Bipolar Felt Distancing

When I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder I, I felt wrapped in a stigma-stereotyped and secluded, suddenly different than the rest of the population. And, in some sense, people with mental illnesses are different; we experience life in a more vulnerable manner.

[push]Most people assume that someone with a mental illness can’t be a successful doctor, lawyer, accountant or a good parent. The mentally ill can only be “crazy” doing stereotypical “crazy things”. And usually those “crazy things” don’t involve a house, a kid, a relationship or a job.[/push]

I can recall times when I’ve told people I have bipolar disorder and received one of two looks. The first look is that of pure pity. Their head will tilt to the side, their brows will furrow and their lips will turn down ever so slightly, suggesting that they are entirely sympathetic, when in fact, they are just more or less shocked. The subsequent look is that of borderline horror. Their mouths will practically “O” as they prepare the following utterance, “Well, you don’t look crazy” as if their response is at all reassuring.

I’ve also found I am my watched more closely, especially around my children, as if people are trying to catch a glimpse of the madness lurking inside that has led to this diagnosis and discover if I too could be a baby killing monster.

So I Compensate for Perceived Incompetence

So it becomes easier to hide my illness to avoid the looks of pity, horror and the parenting stigmas. In doing so, I overcompensate with intellect and utilize whatever notion of normalcy I have.

compensate for bipolar with workI study hard; I make sure my grades are at the top of the class. On the job I’d take on the largest projects and work more hours than most, trying to be everything to everyone.

I try hard not to yell, even if I desperately want to. Instead, I reason with logic rejecting my need to speak from the heart. I never say I’m sad, or having a bad day, or raise my voice at my kids in public when I’m out with friends- even if they deserve it.

I figure if I appear smart and calm then no one can see the inner turmoil of my mania, depression, racing thoughts or my multiple hospitalizations. No one will judge; no one will suspect a thing.

I do all this because, honestly, I don’t really know what else to do to show I’m as competent as those who do not share my burden. It’s easier for me to lose myself than to have to explain to the rest of the world about my illness and how I am still the same “me”.

The Effect of Overcompensation

So I’m left to wonder; wonder if this trepidation of mine is what keeps so many from speaking out about their disease. I wonder if the fear of being looked upon as less competent sears the inside of their souls too.

I also wonder if there is an answer or at least one brave soul who has conquered their anxiety, overstepped the bounds of stereotypes and can readily offer insight to their “solution”-their “how to”, if you will.

Because if that person exists, then I could feel a semblance of hope that the world has the ability see that just because a doctor wrote code 296.89 on some paperwork and a prescription for Lithium, doesn’t mean I can’t be a good employee, student and mother. What it then shows is that I can be competent and bipolar.

And in the end, if I can find this balance, I am no longer compensating for who I want to appear to be–I will be living who I am.

Stephanie is a Bipolar living in Northern California with her husband and two boys, one of which has also been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. When she is not documenting the hilarity of parenting and the challenges of doing so with a mental illness she moonlights as a law student concentrating in the area of Mental Health law.

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