A Brief Note from an Economist with Bipolar Disorder

By Daniel Bergstresser

My name is Daniel Bergstresser. I am an economist and a tenured professor of finance at Brandeis University. I live in Boston and am married, and have two small children. I want to come out into the open about my diagnosis with bipolar disorder.

My diagnosis came in 2014, when I was forty years old. I was suffering from a severe case of pneumonia, which was complicated by asthma. My doctor prescribed a large dose of prednisone to treat the asthma.

DanBergstresserThe large dose of prednisone immediately caused psychosis – specifically mania. My subjective experience during this manic episode was that I was receiving a message directly from God. This subjective experience combined uneasily with my objective knowledge that I had taken medicine and was ill. The message that I felt that I was receiving was straightforward: ‘love everyone.’ In my manic episode, this message carried a very powerful force. I said at the time that it felt like the sun was dawning inside of my head. It was extremely powerful.

The path back from this first manic episode has not been straightforward. I have experienced two more manic episodes since then, both of which coincided with periods of stress. The subsequent manic episodes, though less severe than the first, have been subjectively experienced as potent reinforcements of the ‘love everyone’ commandment of the first episode.

These episodes have led to hospitalization for a total of three weeks. The doctors’ theory is that the prednisone turned a latent undiagnosed hypomanic temperament into full-blown bipolar disorder, with a tilt towards mania. The effect appears to have been permanent, although I manage well now with a combination of drugs (Abilify) and different kinds of therapy. It is interesting to contemplate the extent to which my success in life so far has been a consequence of the fact that I spent the first 40 years of my life with undiagnosed hypomania.

Now that I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and have spent some time confined on a locked hospital ward, I appreciate that mental illness carries a stigma. I am embarrassed that it took experiencing the illness myself for me to appreciate the power of this stigma. I believe that the stigma kills people – it kills by preventing people from getting the help and support that they need. I believe that I have a responsibility to come out into the open as a person who suffers from bipolar disorder. My goal is to help reduce the stigma associated with illness.

My acceptance of my bipolar diagnosis coexists with an acceptance of the ‘love everyone’ message that I have received so powerfully during my manic episodes. This requires a certain amount of disassembly and reconstruction of my life and ways of thinking. For example, what parts of my life are consistent with or inconsistent with truly loving everyone?

This is ongoing work for me. Therapy, medication, my family and my faith community have been extremely helpful for me in the past two years. I have also benefited from becoming more aware of the ways in which current Western approaches to mental illness represent just one possible set of approaches to dealing with a complex phenomenon. In other times and cultures, experiences like mine might be viewed more as cause for celebration than as a sign of ill health. My own views on this experience are complicated, but I am ever more grateful to a very loving God.

Daniel Bergstresser is an Associate Professor at the Brandeis International Business School, and serves as Area Head for the finance faculty at Brandeis. His research focuses on municipal finance and on the impact of taxation, regulation, and market structure on financial markets. He earned a Ph.D. in Economics at MIT, and earned an A.B. at Stanford.

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6 thoughts on “A Brief Note from an Economist with Bipolar Disorder

  1. The Free Woman says:

    I’m speechless after reading this! WOW! I am one of the ones you speak of living in the shadows. Yes, I get help, but I never tell anyone how much I suffer. I will not speak out about my struggles, because twice when I did it went very, very badly with my employers. I don’t want people to worry, so I keep it inside. But, I am tired of fighting. I just want to be normal, and have a break from all of this!

    I’m glad you are open, and honest. I am glad you are doing okay during your recovery!

    Like

  2. Amy Kessler says:

    This is so powerful. One in four people will experience some form of mental illness at some point in their lives. They will be our sisters, brothers, children, spouses, colleagues and friends. How we make it safe for people to get help and return to productive and happy, though different lives will matter a great deal. How employers provide support will matter a great deal. How we support research that helps us better understand triggers will matter a great deal. How much we care will matter the most.

    Like

  3. Moshe Feder says:

    Thanks for your openness and honesty. I too wasn’t diagnosed until early middle age, though I was dealing with the symptoms — more inclined to depression in my case, alternating with hypomania or moderate mania — from late adolescence on. I couldn’t agree more about the importance of speaking out about BP and other forms of mental illness. It’s the only way we’ll erode the stigma. Those of us who are up to it, must do so, and I’ve been at it for about twenty years. It hasn’t kept my from belatedly achieving my goal of being an acquiring editor for a major publisher. Best of luck going forward!

    Like

  4. Al says:

    I commend you for comming forward. I wish my son were alive today to read your story so he would have known he was not alone. He tragically ended his life at age 29 because he hid his problens too long and the health system in PA. failed him. Please continue to your efforts to soread the word that this IS an ILLNESS, and not something to be ashamed of.

    Like

    1. The Free Woman says:

      Al,
      I am so very sorry about your son. Living with MI is hell. Even with help I still hide everything from family, friends & my boyfriend. I can’t tell any employer, because the two times I did it ended very badly.
      People don’t get it, and so it’s such a struggle to share with anyone about how awful it can be. It’s a struggle almost daily. And, on the worst days sometimes I have to live minute to minute and hope for a better tomorrow.
      I’m not sure what to say to you, because I don’t want to hurt you anymore or make it seem like all of what you are going through isn’t tragic.
      I can just hope for you to keep sharing your sons story, because it could help others. But, even if you never do that’s fine also.
      Take care
      Lisa R
      Alexandria VA

      Like

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