TRIGGER WARNING: Drugs and alcohol mentioned.
Imagine it. You went to sleep with a feeling of being absolutely bulletproof, knowing that the next day was going to be another way that you could show everyone that you were amongst the best in your profession.
At 6:30am, after about 3 hours of sleep, you wake up, wishing you hadn’t. The idea of standing up in front of people who respect you is absolutely terrifying. The possibility that the things you’ve studied for years, and passed down to people for almost as long is a waste of time for all involved. The people who are going to listen to you have no idea how little you know, and you know that when you stand up in front of them, you are going to spout absolute nonsense.
That change in thinking is something we have to deal with on a monthly, sometimes weekly, sometimes daily basis. Honestly, I’ve had occasions where this dramatic swing in the way I see myself can happen over a matter of minutes, with absolutely no warning to anyone. I say ‘anyone’… I can feel it coming most of the time, but knowing that you can’t pull back from the change makes it frustrating at best, absolutely horrifying at worst.
When I say ‘we’, I mean people with bipolar disorder. I had had suspicions of this being the case for years before getting diagnosed at a mental health hospital in China in 2018. Ridiculous (and, to others, unpredictable) mood swings have been a part of my personality for a long time (blah, blah, blah, life story. No one has time for that). The thing is, I have loved the way the English language works for just as long.
I remember walking into my first classroom in South China in 2014. The excitement of moving to a new country had triggered that god complex, and I was convinced I was going to blow everyone away. It didn’t happen. I could feel myself making mistakes, and forgetting what I’d learned during all my linguistics classes at uni, and that brief foray into a TEFL course. Ordinarily, that kind of failure would have thrown me a through about a million loops, but it didn’t, for some reason.
In the four years between arriving and being diagnosed, however, this wasn’t the case. In class, pretending was easy enough to begin with, but… “You’re different to them, that’s why they think you’re a bit weird”, “teaching kids isn’t for me, I’ll start working with adults instead… oh God they understand that something is wrong”, “someone asked me a question I couldn’t answer straight away. I’m a fraud”. Those thoughts make it harder to function as a human and a professional. Much harder. Even more so when they come and go, seemingly at will.
After hiding these feelings and mood swings from all but the people closest to me for years, it was pretty much second nature to act positive in all situations, but the pressure of being in a classroom is different to that of serving food, or counting money. Especially when you are dealing with everything in a language that those you are teaching don’t understand. The five hours of teaching a day was enough to turn me into either an awful, miserable person, or a loud, annoying, arrogant foreigner during the three hours I needed to spend in the office per day. Very rarely would there be a middle-ground.
Eventually, and only after an ultimatum from my partner (who for some reason, has been able to put up with this for more than 5 years, at time of writing, she must be a saint), I went to see a doctor, and was diagnosed with Bipolar. They loaded me up with anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, anti-anxieties (don’t know what they are called, the names are in Chinese, don’t ask), and some kind of sleeping pills to help with the insomnia (different story, but it’s been about 15 years since that started).
I thought medication would help, but I felt a total loss of control over myself. The changes in mood didn’t happen so often, but they were far more intense when they did. Not good. Drink more. Smoke more (cigarettes, of course. This is China. I don’t want to go to jail after a random drug test). Ok, maybe smoke something else on occasion (hypo risk taking, made me paranoid for weeks at a time).
I stopped taking medication after about 6 months. Coincidentally, this led to a massive drop in my alcohol consumption, along with pretty much everything else (barring tobacco; don’t @ me).
The thing is, during this time, I could control it in front of the students. I’m convinced my colleagues hated me, but that responsibility to the people who were trying to learn, whilst absolutely crushing at other times, seemed to drag me back into what I HAD to do. All the hiding would happen in that time, and damned how it affected other people, as long as the students were ok.
Finally, after changing jobs, and a lot of other drama, which this is not the place for, I had a revelation. I started working as a British civil servant (in a position that’s still related to language education) in Beijing, and during my first meeting with my boss, I said something which, at the time, I hadn’t said to anyone other than friends: “I have bipolar disorder. I’m sorry. I really don’t want this to effect my work.”
I explained to him that work was a way for me to control myself, and his reaction was shocking:
“Ok, no problem. If you want to work more, that’s fine. If you feel burned out, tell me, and I’ll try to fix it. I’ll check up on you every now and then, just be honest if there’s a problem. Cheers.”
Since then, yeah, there are still problems. But they’re nowhere near as bad. COVID lockdown in Beijing sucked. But, in 173 days of not working, I could count the number of depressive episodes and hypos on one hand apiece. The thing is, I’ve been honest with more people. People I work with. People who are good friends, but not as close as they would have needed to have been a couple of years ago.
It might just be me, but taking that first step, and being honest, has meant there’s less need to hide. And, the less you hide, the more people will accept you. I didn’t know if they knew I was lying before. The thing is, now they know I’m not.