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“I’m bipolar, take medication, and live a pretty regular life. But whenever I’m sad about something, everyone attributes it to my being bipolar instead of legitimizing my very real and very authentic emotions that don’t have anything to do with my diagnosis. The result is that whenever I’m going through a tough time, I feel like I can’t tell anyone. How can I seek emotional support independent of my diagnosis?”

- Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Jo Michelle as part of Everyone Is Gay: Second Opinions

Jo Michelle Says:

A diagnosis can sometimes be a lot like one of those jackets with the zippers that get stuck at the bottom. It’s really hard to take it off (the wiggling-it-over-your-head method is plausible but also causes stares), and even when you can wiggle out of it enough to wrap it around your waist, finally looking totally cool and in control… the jacket is still there.

Once people realize you and this jacket are stuck together, every problem becomes related to the jacket. Overheated? Sure the weather service issued a heat advisory and the pavement’s melting to your shoes, but it’s probably the jacket. Miss your bus stop? It was vacuum-packed with people, you couldn’t see out the windows, and someone put their suitcase on your lap, but…I bet your jacket got stuck, too.

I don’t have to tell you how much it stinks to pour your heart out to someone and get a symptom list or questions about your medication instead of a shoulder to cry on. But someone might have to tell the folks you’re opening up to. They might think they have this all figured out because they looked up “bipolar” to be helpful, and now they’re the opposite of helpful.

If the people you usually talk to are important to you, and you really want them to understand, you might need to let them know they’re doing it wrong. Maybe next time you spill your guts and Friend McFriendly says, “oh Budster, that’s just the bipolar talking,” you can say, “Actually Friend, I was saying I’m sad because my goldfish died. You’d be sad if your goldfish died too, right? And I’m also kind of sad that instead of hearing that I’m sad, you hear bipolar. We can’t bring Fishers back from the dead but can we fix that other thing? It would really help.”

Maybe it’ll go really well. Maybe they’ll ask you how else they can help and you can tell them how much you wish other people could understand and boy it would be great if they spread the word.

Maybe they still won’t get it. But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck feeling misunderstood forever! Even if talking it out with Friend McFriendly doesn’t work, you can find people who understand that your feelings are valid. It might mean finding new friends. It might mean being really honest about your experiences so far and asking for understanding.

But you might also want to consider checking out what opportunities are out there to meet people who know just what you’re going through because they’re going through it, too. I know you said independent of your diagnosis, and I’m not saying you should put out an ad that says, “Cool Bipolar Person Seeks Bipolar Buddy For Buddy-tude.” That’s the opposite of what you want. But drop-in centers, support groups, local community organizations… Sometimes they can help you find people who know what it’s like to have their feelings mislabeled, but would much rather go hiking or marathon a few seasons of Game of Thrones.


Jo Michelle is a trauma-oriented therapist working with children and their families, schools, and wherever else they need her in Western Massachusetts.

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