“The world thought I was shiny, but inside I knew I was black and dark.”
“I live with depression,” wrote Lauren Burke in a letter to Forbes magazine in 2016. “I know I’m not alone in the entrepreneur world and am really sick of all the stigma that comes with it [and] all the people who don’t believe they can do what I do because of their own hidden battles.”
Burke, now 33-years-old, had decided to publicly disclose a secret she had been keeping for a while – in January 2016 she was diagnosed with Type II Bipolar Mood Disorder. Initially the decision to keep her bipolar symptoms a secret was fueled by unreasonable expectations she had placed on herself.
A few years earlier, Lauren made it onto Forbes’ prestigious ‘30 Under 30‘ list of young people who were excelling in their careers. The recognition was significant, considering that she was still undiagnosed at the time.
Besides being featured in Forbes as a trailblazer in the field of Law and Policy, she secured a fellowship at Echoing Green Global, became a member of the New Leader’s Council and was honoured as a New York Law Journal Rising Star. In 2013, Burke was hailed a Distinguished Young Alumna at the New York University School of Law.
Lauren has always felt a deep sense of empathy with the suffering of others. At times, she felt overwhelmed by all the problems in society. She desperately wants to solve everything so everyone could have access to a better life.
It comes as no surprise that Burke established a non-profit organisation which helps young immigrants access to legal representation. Her organisation provides a space where the youths can learn leadership skills and advance their education.
Meanwhile, in private, Burke was suffering from panic attacks and severe mood swings. Presenting an image of a person who is stable and rational is something she believed she had to do to put her clients, staff and benefactors at ease.
For a long time, she was able to maintain the façade of someone who is calm and collected. Burke continued to grow her already very impressive CV. Much of her passion was driven by the intense empathy and concerns she’d feel during depressive episodes, which were later augmented by periods of motivation during hypomania.
Anyone who suffers from BMD might be blown away by Burke’s success despite her debilitating condition. How does she do it?
Getting a diagnosis was a critical first step. According to Burke, receiving the news that she had Type II Bipolar Disorder came as a big relief. For the first time in years, she knew why she had been behaving strangely and feeling such extremes.
Burke recalls moments in her past when she said, did or felt certain things that were considered to be abnormal by others; in retrospect, her disorder had already begun to manifest at an early age, but nobody knew it at the time.
Lauren was only 10 years old when she first began having thoughts of suicide. “I couldn’t stop thinking about wars and famine, and getting really depressed about it,” she says. At her lowest points, she often wished the world would end and eradicate all the suffering with it.
As an adult, after a brief spell of alcoholism, her friend suggested she go see a psychiatrist. Once she had been diagnosed, Burke felt compelled to speak out about the condition. She feared that remaining silent would contribute to the stigma around living with brain disorders.
A diagnosis also meant that she could seek help in the right places because the root of her suffering and inner turmoil was now known. Together with her medical health practitioners, she was able to devise a treatment action plan.
“I’d been trying to keep [my mental health issues] secret for so long, but when there was a diagnosis, I wanted to come clean about it,” she wrote.
Burke adds she believed that by being completely open about her illness. It would not only help others to seek help but also it would assist those around her to better understand the past, present and future interactions they may have with her.
“I finally had to recognise with my staff the way [bipolar] impacted my work,” she says. “I would snap at my staff, and that was in part because of bipolar.”
Poetically, Lauren reflects on how she previously thought feelings were meant to be hidden from the world, and yet she’s since realised that those same feelings are what makes us living, breathing beings.
“I used to believe that I had a black heart,” she says. “The world thought I was shiny, but inside I knew I was black and dark. But then I had a vision of the black heart cracking open, and there was a big diamond inside.”