“But you don’t seem bipolar”

by Jes Edgson


People who suffer from mental illness so often have their diagnosis dismissed because they don't fit into what Susan from accounting saw on TV last Thursday.


©Baluchis / Adobe Stock

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People who suffer from mental illness so often have their diagnosis dismissed because they don’t fit into what Susan from accounting saw on TV last Thursday. Until last year, my own mother didn’t believe my diagnosis.

“You don’t behave anything like [insert name of a person she knows who suffers from bipolar]. You don’t seem bipolar. I think it’s just anxiety.”

Really, mum? All those nights I spent writing furiously until sunrise? All those times I went partying until 5am? All those times I got so depressed that I refused to get out of bed? All those moments of hysterical energy and all those moments where I couldn’t muster up the energy to move? All she saw were the anxiety attacks and the constant look of fear in my eyes.

Mental health issues lie on a spectrum

I don’t blame her. Society has conditioned us to associate mental illnesses with different kinds of stereotypical behaviors and patterns. Because I could function a certain way, obtain a degree and advance in my career, I didn’t fit into this idea of bipolar my mother had gained from interacting with one other person with the same condition. But the truth is that all mental health issues lie on a spectrum. We may have the same diagnosis, but our asshole brains react differently.

Read more: 10 signs you may have an actual anxiety disorder

What goes on inside a person’s head isn’t always visible from the outside. Hell, if it were, I probably wouldn’t be invited to meetings anymore. Or family lunches. Or weddings. And no one would ever show me pictures of their newborn again (it’s ugly, just like the rest of them, Susan).

You don’t seem bipolar at work

One day, last year, I came into work with a smile on my face. I joined in the chorus of “Thank fuck it’s Friday” and cheerfully asked people about their plans for the weekend. I chatted away to my colleagues, caught up on what I’d missed while I was on leave, scratched off every item on my to-do list and there was even a slight spring in my step as I left the office for the day. And then I went home, drank a bottle of wine and swallowed two giant handfuls of medication meant to treat my anxiety.

No one could have known what I’d been thinking about all day. I wasn’t wearing my sadness on my face. My voice didn’t sound like I’d forgotten what it felt like to have hope. I didn’t look like I just wanted the world around me to disappear, or that I just didn’t want to exist. Hell, it took multiple therapy sessions just to get me to admit to myself I actually wanted to die that night. For quite a while I truly believed that I just wanted to pass out and feel nothing for the weekend.

Don’t dismiss what you can’t see

All this is not to say that there have not been times when I have visibly been upset. I’ve cried uncontrollably in public, had panic attacks at social events, gone days without sleeping because I was certain I didn’t need it, submitted work ahead of a deadline at 3am on a Sunday… I’ve displayed these behaviors, just not to the extent and frequency where it is obvious to the casual observer that sometimes the chemicals in my brain lie so well I believe them.

So, if someone ever tells you that they suffer from a mental illness and this comes as a shock to you, don’t dismiss it because you can’t see it. And please don’t ever say “you don’t seem bipolar.”

If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness by a doctor you trust, don’t let other people dismiss what you’re going through, just because it doesn’t make sense to them. I don’t.

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Article by Jes Edgson

Jes Edgson is a writer and editor from Cape Town, South Africa. After living in denial for far too long, she’s committed to breaking the stereotype and “Fucking the Stigma” of mental health issues.



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