Why I hid my bipolar disorder for decades

I have become an expert on the illusion of happiness, of normality. A cold spoon under the swollen eyes before the press conference. A forced smile in the hallway. When I had time away from work, I worked even harder to conceal the signs of my reality—medication tucked away and neatly tucked away in a side pocket of my overnight bag, no mention of therapy or psychiatry. I buried my living truth.

Eventually I married the love of my life and had a child, a precious baby boy. I soothed her newborn crying with bottles full of formula from the local pharmacy because I couldn’t breastfeed on my medication. As I watched all the breastfeeding mothers, I felt terribly guilty that I couldn’t do the same. My shame deepened and despair crept in. By comparing myself to other moms, I concluded that in fact, I was not mother enough. And so it reinforced – the illusion that everyone around me was normal and that I was broken.

In a short time, I had two more children. The disparity in my life confused me, and it confused the people who loved me. I was, in fact, happily married with three healthy children and a meaningful career in Hollywood. The periods of darkness in my inner world did not reflect the beauty of my outer world. I felt like an impostor.

He began to understand that each podcast guest had grown stronger in their suffering. I spent hundreds of hours evaluating the truth in other people’s lives – it now seemed dishonest to hide my own.

Finally, three years ago, I decided to stop hiding.

I had started a podcast, All The Wiser, which was getting more popular by the day. The heart of the show was to speak the truth with courage. I’ve asked people about unthinkable circumstances — shark attacks, wrongful convictions, kidnappings — and the lessons they’ve learned on the other side of suffering.

Culp shared his diagnosis on an episode of his podcast.
Culp shared his diagnosis on an episode of his podcast.Madeleine Northway

I was asking people to do exactly what I hadn’t wanted to do. Be brave in my breakup. Listening to their stories, I realized that I could no longer bury my own story.

On my 43rd birthday, I asked my dear friend and a fellow journalist to interview me about the secret I’ve been hiding for two decades and share it in an episode of the podcast. In an instant, my story grew from less than a handful of people to thousands of people around the world, including old friends and colleagues, and faceless strangers I will never meet.

The day the episode aired, I let go of my old narrative and took a bold leap into the light of being seen. I could barely open the door to get out of my house. What would the neighbors think? School dropout moms?

The answers came slowly: a voicemail here, a text there, an email from a friend I knew in high school. I put my phone aside and logged off, too scared to watch them all at once. I just needed to keep breathing. And then the flood came. I returned to my phone a few hours later to find hundreds of text messages, direct messages and emails. Love overwhelmed me. People got a little closer when we talked. As if they wanted me to know they saw me.

The part of me that I had called unlovable was the very thing that made me human. I was judging myself while the world patiently waited to kiss me.

As a mother, wife, and podcaster, speaking my truth about living with chronic mental illness has been my most powerful and liberating act. I went from shame and secrecy to freedom and service to others. I stopped denying my mental illness and, like magic, it stopped defining me.

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