Learning you're HIV-positive is upsetting enough without having another bombshell accompany the news. But that's what happened to Cliffside Park, N.J., native Stephen Puibello when he was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness. But he didn't let the dual diagnoses drag him down. Instead, he focused on improving his overall health and has dropped 80 pounds in the past eight years. The 49-year-old is in such good shape that he's completed several cycling fund-raisers, including last year's 545-mile AIDS/LifeCycle.
He'll again travel cross-country to California'paid out of his own pocket, despite living on a limited income'for his second LifeCycle in June. And, he says, he views the annual event as a unique chance to help shatter the stigma still associated with mental illness.
Which do you find more difficult to be open about, being HIV-positive or having bipolar disorder?
Puibello: Being bipolar has a bigger stigma than HIV. Don't get me wrong: HIV does have a stigma associated with it. But it sometimes amazes me that there's so much shame associated with mental illness, especially when you consider that there are about 5.7 million Americans affected by bipolar disorder.
Have you faced any negative reactions about your mental illness?
Puibello: I've never been outwardly discriminated against, but some people just don't get it. But I'm lucky enough to have friends all over the world and a strong support network of people who understand my struggle.
When you participate in rides, you wear your BiPolar Bear jersey identifying you as having bipolar disorder. Why do you draw attention it?
Puibello: To fight the stigma associated with mental illness by being open about my personal experiences and to let other bipolar people know they aren't alone. When people see me with my jersey on, they stop me and tell me that someone they know is also dealing with the disorder or that they are bipolar themselves. I've had some very emotional and heartbreaking talks with people who feel such shame about being bipolar.
Successfully managing one chronic disease is difficult enough, let alone two. How are you doing today?
Puibello: My viral load is undetectable, my T-cell count is almost 1,000, and I've never had more energy. I'm living proof that having HIV, a mental illness, or both doesn't have to put you on life's sidelines.
The 545-mile San Francisco to Los Angeles AIDS/LifeCycle ride will be June 1'7. To root on Puibello, sponsor him or another rider, or sign up, please click on the AIDS/LifeCycle link above.