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Accepting the Diagnosis

(BP magazine Summer 2009, www.bphope.com)

At age 29, Julie C. seemed to be at an enviable place in life. She had good friends. She had come out as a lesbian and was comfortable with her sexuality. And she had a fulfilling job that took her to far-off places: She was coordinator of the Toronto-based Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, which supports African women who care for grandchildren orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

That life began to slip away from her in 2007, when she was beset by money and relationship problems. Julie became suicidal, was hospitalized twice, and treated for depression. But her psychologist knew another side of the young woman—the high-energy, high achiever who could sometimes work at a furious pace with little sleep. In 2008, the psychologist told Julie that she believed she had bipolar disorder.

“I was terrified at first,” Julie recalls months later. “I had this dropping feeling in my gut. All the stereotypes I had about [bipolar] came flooding into my head. I have a friend who is bipolar and she has been almost homeless a couple of times, and in and out of hospital. I thought, ‘Oh my God—is this what my life is going to be?’”

Julie, now 31, has accepted her diagnosis. She is stable and feels much better than in the past. She takes her medication daily, maintains a regular sleep schedule, works out, and has improved her eating habits. She still works for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, but is planning to move back to her hometown and work long-distance.

For others, the road to acceptance can be long and circuitous. Peggy M., 38, of Burlington, Wisconsin, has experienced highs and lows since her teens. Although Peggy was diagnosed with bipolar in 2002, acceptance did not come until six years later when she had her first negative work evaluation. Peggy received a poor rating in several areas; the comment that hurt most was “poor communication skills.” “I have a master’s degree in communications. [The review] was a direct contradiction to what I knew about myself,” Peggy says. “That’s when I finally had to admit it was the bipolar affecting my work.”

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