I was 17 in 1989 when I came out to my mother, or rather when she found my collection of Playgirl and Blue Boy magazines. I moved out of my parents’ house, got a day job and graduated from night school on time. There were a few bumps in the road. When I came out to my biological father, he threatened to kill me if he ever saw me again and ordered me to change my name. I can’t say that it didn’t fuck me up and result in some very high therapy bills, but coming out for me was still a relief.
I felt a certain freedom, a certain confidence even. I accepted and embraced my sexual identity. There were so many firsts and so many new experiences. It was thrilling.
Coming out as mentally ill is more challenging. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treatment resistant bipolar depression 16 years ago, when I was 35. Though, honestly, looking back, I can see how my mental illness impacted and affected me throughout much of my life. I was what my pediatrician called “a nervous kid.” I bit my fingernails, had a couple of odd little twitches and “nervous habits” and, as an only child until the age of 13, I had few friends and spent much of my time alone.
As an adult, I continued to suffer from the depression that had plagued me since childhood.
I was in and out of talk therapy and in and out of work, often getting fired or quitting based on some imaginary principle my mind had concocted. I tried anti-depressants and, initially, they helped somewhat. Then I experienced what I call “the year of darkness.”
I hate to even think back on it now. It was 12 months of blurry bleakness encapsulated in a pool of misery. It was a suffocating pressure on my chest that kept me confined to my bed for much of the day. And when I could manage to climb out of it, I’d stand in the middle of my kitchen unsure what to do.
There was nothing I wanted to eat, nowhere I wanted to go, not a damn thing I could think of that I wanted to do or that might bring me a bit of joy or at least relief from the pain. I felt hopeless.
Finally, I sought help and received a diagnosis that made total sense to me. I started medication, but antidepressants, mood stabilizers and the like work differently in everybody. Finding the right combination for my unique makeup was a challenge and a painful process of trial and error. Over the years I’ve tried well over a dozen different medications and combinations thereof.
Side effects varied. Some made me practically comatose, some had me bouncing off the walls. Some did nothing noticeable at all. Finally, I found a combo of three different meds that seemed to work. But they only worked for so long. After another few years I began experimenting with other meds.
Today, I take four different meds, including two mood stabilizers, an antipsychotic and an antidepressant.
It’s enough to keep me basically functional. I stay employed thanks to the gift for words I’ve been blessed with and a boss with the patience of Job. Most people don’t know about my mental health struggles. But like my sexual orientation, it’s not something that I find compelled to keep to myself. If I had kidney disease or heart disease, I’d talk about it. My disease is just as dangerous and just as potentially fatal.
It is estimated that 20-60 percent of patients with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once in their life. Nearly 20 percent succeed. I deal with what’s called suicidal ideation, meaning thoughts of suicide wander into my head frequently. I find myself planning my death, working on my obit, imagining making final arrangements. Most of the time, it’s manageable. Sometimes, however, it’s terrifying and difficult to block the thoughts and quiet my mind.
My close circle of friends don’t like it when I say I’m mentally ill. They think it sounds tragically dramatic. But that’s really the long and short of it. I live with mental illness. I battle it every day. Most folks don’t know about it. It’s not as easy to come out as mentally ill as it is to shout, “I’m a great big homo!”
The diagnosis makes it difficult to date and harder, even, to find love. There’s no good time to come out as mentally ill. It’s not appropriate first date talk. “Hi, handsome. Nice to meet you. I’m a Capricorn and bipolar as hell” is surely not a suitable pickup line.
So, you tread along lightly. Trying to stay calm and not let any potential new boyfriend see you have issues. Trying to show that your good outweighs your bad. That you’re worth the effort. That it’s not such a big deal.
Gay men of my age, we’re expected to deal with HIV. But mental illness carries a stigma that I’d argue is even more challenging. As someone who is HIV negative, I dated someone who is positive for some time. I thought that our individual issues would balance us out. It did not work out that way. Once he knew of my illness, he liked to poke and provoke me. And once I acted out at his prompting, he felt compelled to punish me.
I dealt with that for a time. Now, I basically deal with being alone. The pandemic basically stopped me from going out and from engaging with others. I’m still stuck in that mode. I focus on work. I dream of a brighter future. Of a partner who will accept me as I am. And I try to focus on my stories and turning them in on time.
I have mixed emotions about sharing all these personal details with the world. Like with my sexual orientation, I am not ashamed of who I am. Yet I can’t help but worry that this revelation could somehow be used against me. But maybe somebody out there needs to hear my testimony. I hope so.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. For more information, visit bit.ly/3MslzYB.