Jesse Jackson Jr. Is Bipolar, Not Nuts

The Congressman's diagnosis doesn't mean he can't go back to work.

At last we know what’s been troubling Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. According to yesterday’s announcement from the Mayo Clinic (which Jackson’s office didn’t sanction), he’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, type II. From the New York Daily News:

The announcement Monday was the most detailed to date about the congressman’s mysterious medical leave which began June 10. His office initially described his medical condition as exhaustion and weeks later a statement from the office called it a “mood disorder.” It was only earlier this month that Jackson’s office said he was at the Rochester, Minn., clinic and being treated for depression, after a transfer from the Sierra Tucson Treatment Center in Arizona.

Just to clarify, when his office called it a “mood disorder,” and then called it depression, those were consistent: Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, and depression is one of its manifestations. In fact, his office was even being fairly accurate when they said “exhaustion”—which we know from Britney Spears and every other celebrity means “my brain isn’t working right and I have to get it together.”

Bipolar II is characterized by long periods of depression and shorter periods of hypomania, or as I like to call it, Mania Lite. Every person’s illness expresses itself differently, so I won’t presume to know anything particular about Jackson’s experience, other than that he’s been in pain and it’s been supremely unpleasant. But I can tell you, as a person who has also been diagnosed and treated for Bipolar II, that there is no reason that Jackson can’t go back to work in Chicago and function perfectly well in his job.

And it sounds like he plans to do just that. Last week, a Jackson aide said Jackson was likely to return in a matter of weeks, and the Mayo Clinic’s statement says “Congressman Jackson is responding well to the treatment and regaining his strength.” It sounds like things are going well.

The biggest obstacle Jackson is likely to face is not within him, but without. It’s a sad truth that despite everyone you know being on some med or another—for ADD or depression or anxiety—people who get a label (rather than just a prescription) have a tough time with credibility. I wrote about my own troubles with that for years, and I’ll not belabor the point since Philadelphians have a long memory (and a short tolerance for repetition). I can say, though, that those of us who are explicitly labeled can expect to be challenged, again and again, to prove ourselves sufficiently normal to fit in.

In part this is because any disability turns us from familiar to Other (to get academic about it), and I’m not immune to this myself. It’s the same as when I see a person without legs powering along in a wheelchair: I think, “How does he do that? What’s his life like?” I see him as unlike myself—not better, not worse, just different. I remember in college being intimidated by a woman who wore hearing aids because I was unsure of how to handle myself. Should I speak louder? Was she self-conscious? Now that I have hearing aids myself, it all seems very uninteresting. But that’s how the familiar is: boring.

The bipolar label, however, is not boring or innocuous, despite progress over the last couple decades. It keeps people from getting or keeping jobs; from appropriate healthcare (the word bipolar on an ER chart means you’ll be out of there fast, even if your arm is falling off); from romantic relationships (don’t go out with her—she’s psycho); from getting housing or roommates; from so many sectors of life, it’s ridiculous to name them all. Most importantly for Jesse Jackson Jr., a hospitalization for bipolar disorder will not allow him to return to his office as though he’s just come out of the hospital after open-heart surgery. Flowers on the desk? A welcome-back party? You never know, I suppose, but when someone has that mental illness label, the people around them feel one thing overall: fear. Because you never know when the person is going to “lose it” again.

I don’t want to sell people short. When Jackson gets back to work, plenty of good-natured, intelligent people will be kind and do the best they can under unfamiliar circumstances. But there will be folks who’ll simply think him “crazy,” and whisper about him behind his back. Both groups will likely be wary. So in addition to whatever new medication regimen he has and the nightmare of catching up with work he’s missed, Jackson will be saddled with another heavy burden: to prove he’s not nuts.

My advice to Jackson? Get in there and get the work done. Just work, work, work. Yes, people will talk at first, but they’ll readjust. And you’ll find, now that you’re “out,” that the label isn’t as unfamiliar to people as you’d think. Slowly but surely, co-workers will come into your office, close the door, and say, “You know, I have a cousin with bipolar disorder. Maybe you can help … ” It’ll be the beginning of a different kind of healing, and you’ll be glad the Mayo Clinic released that statement after all.