How Courage Came to the Cowardly
How courage came
to the cowardly
By Kelly Rentzel
I was a twenty-one-year-old college senior when I was diagnosed with Bipolar I.
It would be another twenty-one years before I publicly acknowledged my mental illness. The setting was a medium-sized room in North Dallas. Sixty-six people sat at long rectangular tables arranged end-to-end in five long rows. Most were lawyers there to attend yet another free Continuing Legal Education seminar sponsored by the Dallas Bar Association. They had no idea that, over the next hour, they would be taken on my personal journey from mania to remission to depression to attempted suicide to shock treatment and back to remission again. At 12 p.m. on August 11, 2017, my audience was looking for an easy hour of ethics credit.
To the best of my knowledge, aside from the few friends I had told, no one I had met during my fifteen years of legal practice had suspected I had bipolar disorder. Not that the disorder had not been mentioned in my presence; in fact, quite the contrary: over the years, countless people had come into my office to complain of people other than me who, they proclaimed, were “bipolar”: jealous ex-husbands, angry co-workers, erratic siblings. By all appearances, I was well under the radar, especially now that I was general counsel of a bank. Still, I had assumed that the seminar’s title, “Disorder in the Court: Life as a Bipolar Lawyer,” would alert the audience to my bipolar status.
But moments before I stood up to speak, an older male lawyer I had met on a case years before asked me, “What do you know about bipolar lawyers?”
There was still time to turn back…
After more than two decades in hiding, I could feel myself defaulting to caution and cowardice. I didn’t have to admit my illness. I could say I had a bipolar colleague or friend. I could speak generically about the disorder: symptoms, treatment, famous sufferers. That would be the safe course—the course I had followed my entire career.
But I had already deviated from the “safe course” months before when I disclosed my condition to my employer. I had endured that uncomfortable exercise in order to give myself freedom to speak in public. There was no going back now.
I looked up at the man and smiled. “I’m bipolar.”
Then I stood up and, over the next forty-five minutes, shared the whole self-incriminating story.
At the conclusion of my presentation, I asked the somewhat shell-shocked audience whether they had any questions. Several hands shot up. The first few questions were relatively predictable:
What medication was I on?
How long ago did I receive shock treatment?
Were bipolar people really more creative than other people?
Lithium, Wellbutrin, Ambien. Five years. There’s certainly a body of evidence to support this contention, and for further information, I recommend consulting my very favorite article ever, “You Don’t Have To Be Bipolar To Be a Genius, But It Helps.”
I was on a roll….until a distinguished-looking Indian man in the front row stopped me dead in my tracks:
“What gave you the courage to speak about this?”
I knew I could not give him an adequate answer. For one thing, I had only barely had the “courage” in question. I had toggled between courage and cowardice right up until I opened my mouth. Even when I did speak, I had approached the topic in a way that gave me distance from it. After (truthfully) telling the audience I had prayed for the courage to speak from the heart about my brain, I had launched into a Wizard of Oz metaphor: I, as Dorothy, had endured a tornadic storm (mania), then landed in a new world in which I was now an outsider (my post-diagnosis life), then traveled a long yellow brick road (remission), then endured a dark forest (anxiety/depression), and ended up fighting for my life against an evil witch (suicidal depression) before finally reaching the Emerald City (my current life as a happy, healthy working mom). Somewhere between the tornado and the brick road—several minutes in—I had buried the word “bipolar.” It was about as third-person as a first-person story could be.
Standing before the audience, the best I could do was explain where the courage began:
After I was diagnosed, I read all the books on bipolar disorder that I could find. I was so grateful to Kay Redfield Jamison and Patti Duke for sharing their stories, and I used their stories as inspiration. But I still felt so alone. I did not see any examples of people with bipolar disorder who just went out and lived normal professional lives. I did not want others to feel as alone, hopeless, and limited as I did. So I promised my twenty-one-year-old self that I would succeed in some type of professional career and then, once I got to a point where I could reasonably safely do it, I would share my story.
After the presentation, the distinguished Indian man approached me. Shaking my hand, he introduced himself as Madhukar Trivedi. The name sounded vaguely familiar. Looking down at the card he handed me, I immediately realized why: Dr. Trivedi was Chief of the Division of Mood Disorders at UT Southwestern—the hospital where I had received the life-saving shock treatment I had described minutes before. Leaning towards me, almost conspiratorially, he said, “This will get easier as you keep going. You will see how much your story helps people.”
Here was someone who knew exactly where courage comes from: encouragement. The word “encourage,” it turns out, literally means, “to put courage in,” or, more fundamentally, “to put heart in;” its opposite, “discourage,” is composed of the roots “dis” (away) and “courage,” hence, its meaning: “to drive away from courage.” According to my trusty Oxford English Dictionary, a form of the word “discourage” first appeared in printed English (okay, Middle English) in 1481, while the word “encourage” came on the scene in 1490. Thus, there is etymological evidence that, as of at least 500 hundred years ago (and probably long before), people recognized that courage could be instilled in and removed from others. What can be given can also be taken away. (The effects of other people on courage and heart are very much worth discussing in the context of depression, and I hope to do so in a future writing.)
Words of encouragement are particularly powerful to me—mantras of courage. In the months leading up to my speech, I clung to a few in particular:
“If they did, that would be the best federal case ever!”
- my former boss, a retired magistrate judge, after I expressed concern (thankfully, ultimately unfounded) that my superiors at work might demote me if I disclosed my disorder
“In order to speak what you might regard as the truth, you have to let go of the outcome.”
- Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, psychology professor and author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, in a Youtube clip entitled (unofficially by its poster) “Jordan Peterson - Speak your truth or pay the price,” which I must have watched at least 50 times before that first speech
“Sometimes you just have to say, ‘Damn the torpedoes!’”
- my high school English teacher’s husband, who, though unfamiliar with Dr. Peterson’s above-cited statement, gave me this perfect five-syllable distillation of it during a much-needed telephonic pep talk the day before I disclosed my disorder at work
“You’re in the bonnet; I’m in the wagon! Keep going!”
- my close friend and former co-clerk who, after I called her in a panic the day before my presentation, texted me a picture of a bonneted pioneer woman standing in tall prairie grass, Conestoga wagon behind her
The story I told that day was mine, but the story of sharing my story belongs to these people and so many others who provided encouragement as I made my slow advance to that first podium.
The next time I spoke in public, I had Dr. Trivedi’s words at my back. I also had the words of at least a hundred others who, in the wake of my first presentation, had written letters, e-mails, and Facebook messages. Every word had given me more courage. This time, there was no Dorothy, no cyclone…no fiction at all. I walked onto the stage, leaned into the microphone, and spoke the impossible: