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Ending Stigma One Story at a Time

Updated: Mar 30

Photograph by Kai Pilger

In life, there are secrets and revelations, things that isolate or emancipate. Many of us live with secrets that, at some crisis point, turn into revelations. Whether welcome or unwelcome, revelations arrive suddenly and are usually life-changing, like the one I experienced a few years ago.

My secret was bipolar disorder. I didn’t want anyone to know I had a mental illness. I was afraid it would jeopardize my relationships and livelihood. Why was I so reluctant to share this significant part of myself with my family, friends, and coworkers? They should be my natural support system, right?

Stigma shames those of us who live with mental health diagnoses. It unfairly erodes community support to those who need it most. Bipolar can be an overwhelming disease. It has a negativity bias, meaning that when we are symptomatic, we feel bad about ourselves and our world. Society’s projection of shame only serves to keep us entrenched in that prison.

Connection counters the painful isolation that is characteristic of many mental illnesses.

When I began to recover from a severe mixed episode in 2013, I decided to do something daring and new as part of my treatment: I decided to be open about my illness. It was one last effort to save my life. I joined the board of my local NAMI affiliate, earned my certification as a Peer Counselor, and started speaking and writing publicly. I was searching for hope.

The more frequently mental illness is talked about, the more likely it is that peers and family members will connect with services and one another. Hearing people’s stories of hope is empowering—whether that person is Mariah Carey, Dwayne Johnson, Demi Lovato, Kevin Love or you and me. Research shows that knowing someone successful who has experienced a mental illness is the number-one way people overcome their prejudice.

You can imagine (or may know) how hard it is for happiness to squeeze itself into the chaos and pain of a mood disorder. Nevertheless, the human spirit is resilient and strong, and happiness can squeeze in. A lyric by Leonard Cohen reads, "there is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in."

I found hope along my journey. I started to recognize happiness through the veil of my illness. Although this respite can be transitory, my stretches of wellness are now longer and the times of suffering less severe and more manageable.

I’ve learned that I can have bipolar disorder and be happy at the same time.

If you have bipolar, don’t give up. If you have any kind of mental illness, don’t give up. You do belong and you can contribute. You can experience periods of wellness and moments of happiness that will carry you through times of distress. You may not feel as stable and whole as you would like to but, remember, it’s through the cracks that the light gets in.

While Cohen’s lyric is beautiful and applicable, poet Robert Browning had it right, too: cracks reveal the truth inside, so "the imprisoned splendour may escape."

In life, there are secrets and revelations. Whether or not you choose to talk about your mental health journey, remember to share the revelation of your light with the world.

Don’t let that be a secret.


Marie has been writing poetry for 30 years to cultivate resilience and mental health. She has published in the Paterson Literary Review, Tiny Seed Journal, High Plains Register, The Writing Cooperative, and numerous chapbooks. Her poetry was recognized by the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards and Wyoming Writers. Pink Sunset Luminaries was published in 2018.

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