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In this Article

By Linea Johnson, as told to Rachel Reiff Ellis

The word "bipolar" can be confusing. It makes it seem like there are simply two sides to the disorder: You're either really happy or really sad. But it's much more complex than that. There are people with bipolar disorder who have rapid cycles, and there are those who may never experience mania the way the public thinks of mania.

What It’s Like for Me

The majority of what I experience as someone with bipolar I is significant bouts of deep depression with suicidal ideation, or thoughts about wanting to die. I have experienced mania, but for me, it’s a hypomania: a milder version of mania that lasts for a shorter period. I’ve also had mixed episodes, which are high and low symptoms happening at the same time. These are periods where I may have the energy of mania, but instead of feeling good and creative, I feel agitated and sad and can't sleep. It's a dangerous place to be.


A bipolar diagnosis comes with a lot of emotion. Part of me felt like it was a death sentence. I knew the rates of suicide were high with bipolar. So the thought -- will this kill me? -- was always in the back of my mind. I also wondered what kind of life I could possibly live. I was young and full of dreams and aspirations, but It was hard to believe that my diagnosis would allow the future I wanted.

But on the other hand, there was so much relief in finally knowing what I was dealing with. Naming it meant I now had strategies to try to help manage it. I also felt a great deal of validation. It confirmed what I’d felt all along. There’s actually something different about my brain that has caused these symptoms for years.

Connection Is Key

I have been lucky enough to have the resources and support to find wonderful doctors and counselors to get the treatment that helps me. But as someone who has worked in mental health and disability awareness and acceptance for the last decade, I know that’s not the case for everyone.

During my first hospitalization, I ended up in a unit that had a lot of struggling people. Many were homeless and dealing with legal problems and substance abuse on top of their disorders. Many of them had a hard time getting a hospital bed. They had no one with them. I was in a room, my parents at my side. I had somewhere to go when I left. But they were experiencing a mental health crisis, just like I was. We were connected. I knew I’d never see things the same way again.

A crucial piece of my own acceptance and path to advocacy was finding a community of other people living with mental illness and disabilities. Being around people who “got it” helped me delve into the deeper parts of mental health advocacy, disability studies, and disability rights. And one of the biggest tenets I now hold is that my disability isn’t something wrong with me, it’s who I am. It's society that makes things hard.

Moving Toward Acceptance

Historically, a lot of people have been afraid to come forward about their diagnosis, especially in the workplace. There’s a stigma that having bipolar disorder means you’re unstable. Maybe you can't handle projects because they’re too stressful, or maybe you won’t be reliable.

But I’ve been working in the field of mental health and disability awareness and acceptance for over a decade now, and I see the stigma shifting a bit. There’s been a lot of advocacy to help society understand that you can live well with bipolar and mental illness in general. I hear fewer people talking about mental illness as “dangerous.” It’s my hope that public perception will continue to move in this direction.

Some of that acceptance starts with us: those who have bipolar disorder. It took a long time for me to get there. When I was in my early 20s, I wanted to find acceptance right away, both from myself and from others. As I've gotten older, I've begun to understand that sometimes I'm not going to feel acceptance, but I’m still OK, just as I am.

There are still hard days. But I’m able to recognize now that they will pass. The rest of the time I'm happy in my life. I truly feel like bipolar has given me all the things that make up my life. It’s taught me so much. It's been painful, but I wouldn't change it for the world. It's who I am.

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Linea Johnson, 36, Tacoma, WA.