The Rich and Famous and Desperately Silent

Inside the bipolar closet.

Posted Nov 05, 2016

I had breakfast this morning with a Very Important Person, who happens to be bipolar.  I can't tell you who he is; all I can say is that he's an extremely gifted performer, with a devoted fan base.  He doesn't want to disclose his bipolar disorder for fear of alienating his admirers and the entertainment industry.  "I'd never get work again," he said.  Stigma, yet again, has robbed the world of a vital teaching moment.

The VIP and I had met only once before.  I'd gone backstage after a performance and by a slip of the tongue, I can't recall why, briefly referred to my illness.  He eagerly took me aside and said, "Me, too.  We have to talk."  And talk we did a few weeks later, nonstop and breathless for over two hours, our eggs and coffee growing stone cold. 

We quickly learned we had loads in common.  We laughed at the outrageousness of past manic moments, and held hands at one point in recognition of shared despair.  I was surprised that in spite of how much richer and more famous this person was, our lives had followed such parallel tracks.  There was the early abuse of alcohol in an attempt to self-regulate the highs and the lows.  There was the flirtation with self-harm to release the otherwise unbearable pain.  There was the guinea pig agony of medication trials, seeking just the perfect balance of chemicals to round out our mental equilibrium.  But there the striking resemblance stopped. 

I was out and he was not, and the difference was fundamental.

He couldn't see any advantages to being bipolar—it was a curse, he said, with no point and no meaning.  I explained to him how much more rewarding my life has been since I've come out to the world:  the hundreds of emails I've received thanking me for my example, the outpouring of genuine affection and concern.  But he just shook his head, and I felt so sad.  He was denying himself the gift of disclosure, which drove him further and further into secrecy and loneliness, and into his disease.

By the end of breakfast, he acknowledged that maybe someday—after his career was over—he'd like to help others who are struggling with the illness.  "You could have a tremendous impact on people," I told him.  Perhaps that appealed to his slightly narcissistic temperament.  He smiled a crooked smile and looked at me.  There was the slightest sheen of tears in his eyes.  "I'm so tired of keeping it secret, worrying all the time that someone will find out," he said.  "There's got to be a better way."

There is, I quickly assured him.  All it takes are four little words, "I have bipolar disorder."  He was right: It may be a cruel, vindictive world, but I think we've got the potential in us to transcend cruelty and ignorance and bigotry.  I think we can respond with our kinder natures, and recognize the courage that it takes any one human being to speak the truth about himself.