Lily Chan thought she had a superpower. She seemed to have endless energy and could go days – sometimes weeks – operating on only a few hours of sleep. She worked while others slept, collaborating across oceans and time zones in her job as a chemical engineer with a multinational corporation. She was a rising star, and she felt unbound – infinitely creative and productive. “At first I was very proud. I thought it was my asset,” she recalls. “Until I realized I actually couldn’t control or slow down at all. Soon, everything was going so fast and my brain just couldn’t stop. Then I got very fatigued, very sick.”
When those down cycles hit, Lily withdrew and sank into deep sadness. The transition was never gradual. When it came, it fell like heavy curtain, suddenly and intensely. “I would hide away, shut down, not want to get up even to brush my teeth,” she remembers.
In her late-20s, Lily was hospitalized with exhaustion and then diagnosedwith bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder in which people can experience periods of elevated mood and depressed mood.¹ A period of elevated mood is known as a manic or hypomanic episode, and a period of depressed mood is known as a depressive episode.¹
Lily now had an explanation – and treatment plan – for her mood swings; but the diagnosis brought no relief. Instead, she rejected it. She feared stigma from her colleagues and friends if she revealed she had a mental illness, and she held her own self-stigma. She didn’t want people to attribute every brilliant idea or misstep to her disease. So, she denied and hid it. She took her medication sporadically, and not at all when she felt good. That led to a rollercoaster ride with 10 years with episodes of mania and severe depression and a series of hospitalizations. She fell from the highs of her early-career success to a reality of unemployment, divorce and struggles with daily living.
Eventually, with treatment, the support of her family and introduction to peer support, she gained control of her disease and found herself. “I realized that if I hide, it only makes my journey harder,” she says.
Now, when Lily looks in the mirror, she is comfortable with who she sees: Lily. Not a person defined by bipolar disorder, nor someone running from the disease. Just Lily, 54 years old, successful in her career, loved by her family, committed to supporting people with mental health challenges and recovered from bipolar disorder. “Accepting myself makes it easier to ask people to accept me. Please accept me as the person I am. I am Lily.”