“I’m writing to you because I’m ready to ‘come out’ with a big truth in my life — I live with depression. I know I’m not alone in the entrepreneur world and am really sick of all the stigma that comes with it/all the people who don’t believe they can do what I do because of their own hidden battles.”
That’s an excerpt from an email I recently received from 32-year-old Lauren Burke who was recently diagnosed with bipolar II, a mental illness with moods cycling between high and low over time.
Lauren’s LinkIn profile is a success story. She is a Forbes 30 Under 30 in Law and Policy, 2014 Echoing Green Global Fellow, NYU’s Distinguished Young Alumna of 2013, A New Leader’s Council 40 Under 40 and a New York Law Journal Rising Star. She’s fluent in Mandarin. Today she’s the cofounder of a Brooklyn based non-profit that unlocks immigrant youth’s access to legal services, leadership development and learning opportunities, working with them in a space owned, run and governed by the youth.
I asked Lauren to tell me more about why she wants to share her truth. She said she wants to help others. I asked her to tell me more. This is what she wrote:
On January 28, 2016, I admitted to myself that I had depression. On January 29, I was diagnosed with bipolar II. I was stunned.
“Go home,” my new psychiatrist told me, read about it, and if it doesn’t click, then we will try something else. But it did click.
Let me back up.
For the last six years, I’ve struggled with what many would call depression. It’s a term so overused in today’s culture that it has been rendered meaningless. Depression is defined by Wikipedia (God of all information) as “a state of low mood and aversion to activity.” Afflicting roughly 17% of the population of the United States, we treat it as if it’s a bad cold. Perhaps that’s why I was able to hide it so well.
I had my first suicidal ideation when I was ten years old. I remember that I was at Camp Woodstock and something must have happened, but I looked around everywhere for a tall building I could jump off of. The cabins, I decided, were way too low and would only break a leg and my mom would get mad and I’d cause a fuss. Instead, I ran into the woods, waiting for a counselor to yell at me for “causing a scene.” I caused a lot of scenes as a kid. After watching Fried Green Tomatoes and witnessing homelessness in art form, I slept outside my house, crying because I didn’t think I deserved a bed. My hyper periods caused me to be deemed ‘too wild’ to be invited to some birthday parties. I remember first cutting myself with those little metal stars that stuck to one another at a sleepover when I accidentally hit my friend in the face with a baton. I thought we were just playing around.
My psychiatrist today would tell me that these were all signs of hypomania, a necessary piece of the bipolar puzzle that is characterized by bouts of energy, racing thoughts, and psychomotor agitation. AKA the perfect goal-oriented child. Though my energy caused issues at times — I was labeled a spaz as a child and asked if I was on cocaine as an adult — it generally produced what many would consider the embodiment of success. At Connecticut College I ran the East Asian Studies Student Advisory Board, was captain of the rugby team, directed plays and was an Admissions Fellow. After I graduated from the NYU School of Law, received prestigious fellowships such as the Skadden and Echoing Green, become a law professor at age 27, and made the Forbes 30 Under 30 when I started my own non-profit at age 28. The hypomania has served me and will continue to serve me well.
It’s the depression that was, and still is, a bitch.
The depressive episodes which plague those with bipolar II are the same as episodes of the 17% of Americans who struggle with major depressive disorder. My low points are an endless parade of hopelessness at its worst, where it has been for the past six weeks. Of wishing the world would end humanity’s suffering. Of seeing the tiny body of Alan, the little Syrian refugee boy who perished due to our collective failure, wash up on shore after shore after shore. Of smiling for a moment and then remembering that soon you’ll forget how to smile, because your parents will die one day. Of fighting yourself every day you wake up to get up, take a shower, try and breathe, try and smile, try and act like you believe you have something to live for.
And then there’s that thing about being a leader.
When I started my non-profit dedicated to supporting and empowering immigrant youth in 2011, I was in complete denial about what would later become a diagnosable illness. I think it had to be that way, because if someone had told me I had major depressive disorder or — God forbid — bipolar II, I would have given up. First of all I work with children who are electrocuted by their parents, sold by their siblings, treated as non-humans by the government. Who the hell was I to feel sad? Secondly, the stigma is so harsh, the stories we hear so fatal, that you can’t help but believe your life ends with that prognosis. The world celebrated my accomplishments by day while I felt like I was drowning at night. Feeling like I had to be strong for my employees, my members, my clients, my funders. Everyone talks about the pains of foundations, of boards, of investors who don’t get it, of privilege that holds you back.
No one wants to talk about the very real demons that exist within our minds, the illnesses that can consume us. The panic attacks that send us to the ER or wake us up at night. The days where we would do anything — ANYTHING — to avoid getting out of bed. The alcohol we imbibe to forget it all. The Netflix that we watch to distract our real pain.
Last year, I wrote about how my willingness to take a low salary (a battle I am still fighting) ensures that the immigrant youth I support could never hold my same position. The same goes for mental illness and depression, or even being human. We treat our emotions as some disease to eradicate, when instead they are what make us alive. I could never be where I am today without the fast pace of my brain, my deep empathy, and my clear visioning of injustice. But it’s ok to ask for and to receive help, to realize that enough is enough, and to say you can’t do it alone anymore.
My non-profit not only supports immigrant youth, but hires them to work at our organization, giving them the tools they seek to change our deeply wounded world. One member quit because she was feeling too depressed. I had created the idea that the best worker is a happy worker, unencumbered with the burden that is being human — without staring her in the face and saying, “Yes, being human is a burden.” The world we were born into is not perfect. Sometimes, our brains are broken, our bodies are weak, or our chemistry is unbalanced. And yet we must do wonders with the joyous burden that is being human.
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