Sometimes you just have to blurt out the truth. That’s what happened in 2012 to Ken Barlow, chief meteorologist at KSTP-TV. He was standing before thousands of walkers gathered in support of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
I didn’t want people to tiptoe around me, thinking I’m going to flip out at any moment.Barlow had agreed to host this annual benefit walk, and as he gave a welcoming speech, the anti-stigma and “don’t-be-ashamed” signs among the crowd were catching his eye. He had already planned to talk about how his deceased father’s mental illness, bipolar disorder, had been kept a secret – even from his five sons – out of shame.
But then he knew it was time for him to say something more. The odds were that at least one of his father’s sons would experience this same illness, he told the crowd.
“It’s me,” he went on to say, revealing for the first time in public that he too lives with the unruly mix of paralyzing depression and manic thoughts characteristic of bipolar disorder.
“And everybody clapped,” Barlow recalls, with a wide grin. But that day he didn’t know what the consequences might be beyond this friendly crowd. He wondered if it might even cost him his job.
Acceptance at work
It didn’t. The next time he showed up at work, he says, “I didn’t know what to expect. When I first went in, nobody said a word to me.” Then he spotted fellow reporter Rusty Gatenby. “He came walking by, and he goes, ‘Oh, there’s the nut bag.’” Barlow is laughing as he recalls this pivotal moment of accepting camaraderie from a colleague.
“I hugged him, and I said, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ That’s exactly what I wanted people to do. I didn’t want people to tiptoe around me, thinking I’m going to flip out at any moment,” says Barlow. “Everybody there has just been great.”
A public face for bipolar disorder
After Twin Cities newspapers reported on his revelation, he was invited to talk about his illness on Channel 2’s Almanac. Says Barlow, “I was terrified. I was shaking.” He was still coming to terms with the fear and shame he carried due to stigma about mental illness.
Now Barlow talks regularly and comfortably about his experience with this chronic condition, diagnosed 15 years ago when he was age 45. Once he publicly acknowledged having the illness, he received thousands of emails, all of them offering support. He even heard from actress Glenn Close, who saw one of the articles about him and who has family members with mental illness. Close had started an organization, Bring Change to Mind, to promote awareness and dialogue about mental illness. Barlow has since appeared in public service ads and provided other support for this group. He has also served on the board of NAMI and been asked to give a talk on many occasions about his experience.
A personal battle every day
While Barlow’s public advocacy work is geared to reducing the stigma of mental illness, privately he has to navigate the daily ups and downs of bipolar disorder. “Down in the well,” Barlow has named the dark experiences. “That means I’m depressed. I don’t want to do anything. I don’t care about anybody. Get away from me.”
This state can last for hours, days, weeks. It landed him in the hospital for a few days in February of 2022. There is a constant tweaking of medications that sometimes need extended monitoring.
By contrast, the spurts of mania feel over-the-top good. That euphoria can lead to speeding, troublesome spending, or compulsive cleaning (a favorite activity of Barlow’s). These episodes of mania and depression show up without warning.
“As I’ve gotten older, they’re coming more frequently,” says Barlow. “A rapid cycler is what my doctor calls me, where I can go from here to there in a day. So that makes it really hard. It’s like, ‘Oh wow, where am I today on the scale?’
“The problem is when you’re in a really good mood, you don’t know if you’re really in a good mood or if you’re going manic. Even when you’re happy, you can’t be happy. Because we all know when we’re depressed, but when I’m in a good mood, I’m thinking in the back of my head, ‘Oh my God, is this going to be a bad mania thing or am I just feeling good?’ I don’t know. So, you question it all the time.”
Put on a happy face
You’re not quite there, but you’ve got to keep going, keep pushing. And slowly you come out of it. But sometimes it takes a month.How does someone like Barlow go on TV and give a weather report when depression and mania are frequent companions?
“Put on a happy face,” Barlow says. “People with depression do this all the time. You really have no choice. Because if you’re a weatherman on TV and you’re depressed, nobody wants to see that.”
It’s not as if he can unplug from the troubles of the world to ease his state of mind. “I have to hear the news for 5-1/2 hours a day, over and over and over,” he says, though he has cut back. “But I have anxiety too, so it’s a bad mixture to have anxiety and depression.”
There is no hint of self-pity in his remarks. “There’s a lot of people like that,” he says. “I’m meeting them all the time.” His own struggles have expanded his compassion for other people’s suffering. When he sees people panhandling, he reserves judgment, he says. “You never know what the battles are that people are fighting. You don’t know if they have depression or schizophrenia or bipolar or just unpaid bills.
“Just because I’m walking around in a suit and a nice haircut doesn’t make me better than him. I’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I just pack it up well. And some people don’t know how to do that.”
With Barlow’s easygoing personality, he conveys an overall sense of acceptance about his illness, smiling with a Mr. Rogers’ grin as he speaks about it. It’s his daily reality and he counts on support from others and self-care strategies to manage the vagaries of his illness.
Leaning on others
“The best thing I did was get a support system,” he says. “I have my therapist, my meds doctor, and my wife and my kids.”
His wife Theresa has been a stalwart partner for 40 years. One thing he appreciates learning from her is “the mantra I constantly tell myself: You’ve been down this low. You’ve gotten out of it. You just have to keep remembering coming out of the dark, because it really is like being in a well, and getting better is climbing up the well. And it’s getting brighter as you go up. You’re not quite there, but you’ve got to keep going, keep pushing. And slowly you come out of it. But sometimes it takes a month.”
Barlow says that his wife is often aware before he is that he’s hitting a rough spot.
“She can tell by the cadence of my walk to the coffee pot on a Saturday morning if I’m up,” he says. “If my steps are too rapid, she’ll know. Isn’t that funny? And she’s always right, because she’ll say, ‘Are you feeling a little up today?’ And I’ll say, ’Maybe?’” He chuckles self-amused as he reveals his caginess.
His hesitancy, he says, is because “it’s really hard to admit to somebody that you’re up because you don’t want to come down. It feels so good and you’re so productive, until it gets to that zone where you’re speeding and spending money.”
By contrast, when depression slips in, Barlow has no oomph for anything, including his favorite activity of running, so he chooses an easier pace.
Getting through the day
“I have a backpack that I fill up with weights and I’ll go for a walk,” he says, “because when I’m depressed, I don’t want to run. Which is how I know I’m depressed, because I always want to run. So, when I’m depressed, I take walks. I play with the dog. My dog makes me happy. I do things that make me feel like I’m out of this basement or this well, as I call it. I try to do positive things.
“I don’t know what meditation really is, but I think this might be a form of it. I just sit and think with my eyes closed: I’ve been through this before. I’ll get over this again. I’ve had worse before. I’ll get over this again. And it’s true.” His wife’s mantra again carries him through.
The cycles of the illness are unpredictable. “It comes and goes really fast for me,” he says. “Like I said, I’m a rapid cycler. So, one day I’ll be [thinking]: I don’t want to get out of bed. Don’t look at me. And within hours or the next day, it’s like nothing ever happened. It’s the strangest thing, and the hardest part is you don’t have control of it.
Barlow has gotten a lot of kudos for his bravery in publicly telling his story and countering the stigma of mental illness. But, he says, “it’s the everyday people that make me the happiest because people are just so thankful. I still see people all the time who will stop me and I think they’re going to ask me a weather question, but they say, ‘Hey, my brother has bipolar disorder. I just wanted to thank you.’ And I give them a big hug because it makes me so happy.”
Hope, help and hugs
Barlow is that kind of guy. He likes to make others feel good. He’s a hugger. He’s kind to himself and to others, and he encourages people with bipolar disorder to be easy on themselves. Let others help you, he says. Listen to your support system. Get help from NAMI if you need it.
He tries to steer people away from suicide. From experience, he knows how “things don’t matter when you’re that low,” but he says, “We always have to remember in the back of our minds that we might not care, but other people care about us.” He is a walking example of one who cares.
Pat Samples is a Twin Cities freelance writer, writing coach, and somatic coach. Her website is patsamples.com.
Last Updated on October 28, 2023