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How I "Bought In" to Living With a Mental Illness

I hated swallowing the medication. I hated the way my cheeks felt fat. I hated how the stirring rumors of my psychotic episode resulted in isolation. I hated the blank spaces that had to be filled in at the doctor’s office under “other conditions.”

But more than my hatred of side effects, judgment, and therapy bills, I hated being bipolar.

If there were a word stronger than hatred and more powerful than the angry blood pumping through me, I’d pick that one. The word bipolar clothed me with disgust and humiliation, unlike any embarrassment or shame I’d ever felt. It suffocated me.

I felt like the word itself was the new defining factor of who I was as a person.

It reminded me of my limited value, and indicative of my narrowing, tragic future. Bipolar became my identity, similar to my curly hair and freckled face. It remained there.

It refused my constant prayers to exit my life and let me return to being Erin, the girl who knew normalcy.

I would do my best to mask it, lie about it, and deny it, yet this led to spending my limited energy on fighting an opponent who had already been awarded champion.

I didn’t have a choice.

I realized that bipolar disorder had already purchased property in my mind. It had moved the boxes in and claimed it as its own. Bipolar disorder didn’t check in with me to see if the space was available for rent...there was no cost negotiation.

The purchase was made with an expiration date of forever, no signature required.

Now, with over 20 years of being “in the ring” with bipolar disorder, I am the one calling the shots. Could this mood disorder make a swift uppercut and get a quick jab in while I’m focusing my attention on living life?


But the likelihood of that jab drawing blood or knocking me to the ground is slim. I’ve spent too much time training, my protective gear is top of the line, and my reflexes are 10 times faster than they used to be.

After two hospitalizations, debilitating depression, medically withdrawing from college, and battling an eating disorder, I made a choice. I wasn’t willing to tap out.

While I couldn’t change the fact that I had bipolar disorder, I could take charge of the impact it had on my life. I wanted to parade around inside that ring, a champion, with my arms held high and my chest pumping with pride.

I craved authentic applause, one that I knew I was worthy of.

I was no longer willing to let bipolar disorder bully me around.

I bought into the fact that I am living with a mental illness. I cannot change it, cure it, or stop it. However, I can manage it in a way that allows me to live a flourishing and fulfilling life.

I let go of my hatred and embraced the fact that bipolar disorder and I were lifetime roommates, sharing the same cereal and closet space.

This is when my life completely changed.

I remembered who I was, and that didn’t include a diagnosis, a chart number, or a medical description in the DSM-5 Manual.

I was a strong, independent woman who had something to fight for.


This is how “buying in” got me to where I am today.

  1. If you're taking medication and you're feeling better, that means it's working. Keep taking it.

  2. Don’t worry about what other people think. Your time is too valuable.

  3. Bipolar disorder is just a word. It doesn’t define you unless you allow it to.

  4. You are completely capable of success. Nothing is out of reach. Stand on your tip toes if you must.

  5. You will have to work on your health and well-being regularly. Self-care is a lifestyle, not an option.

  6. Therapy must remain an active part of your life. It is the sustenance for overall healing.

  7. Create and embrace a support system that doesn’t have limitations or ultimatums.

  8. Don’t be ashamed of something you can’t control. It’s a wasted emotion and will leave you feeling empty.

  9. There is purpose and meaning in every struggle. Use your voice in honor of others who remain voiceless. They deserve to be heard. So do you.

  10. You have the ability to define yourself. Nobody is living your life but you. Make it count!

Erin Callinan, MSW is a thriving business owner, author, and keynote speaker breaking mental health stigma across national stages. She is the Founder of Beneath The Brave where she combines practical strategies with evidence-based research to help companies enhance employee mental health. Get in touch with Erin at or visit Beneath The Brave at



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