(Trigger warning: This post contains terms mental health survivors may find offensive.)
When first confronted with the locked ward thirty years ago, you could say I resisted. I had an inkling something wasn’t quite right with me, but I most certainly had no interest in joining the ranks of the mentally ill. I knew almost nothing about manic depression, as bipolar affective disorder was referred to in those days, but I knew enough to realize even a whiff of that label would cause people to view me negatively.
I have tried over the years to enjoy Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” song. Espouse the driving beat and catchy tune, party and dance to The Purple One’s genius. But the words still sting. Once you’ve lived through losing your mind, celebrating going crazy becomes difficult.
I wince when I hear people speak casually about the loony bin, straight jackets or being taken away in a truck. I’ve experienced some of those things firsthand and they’re not funny. It’s a universal fear to lose touch with reality so people often say things like, “Working from home is going to drive me crazy.” Mental health issues in the time of COVID-19 are real and I take umbrage with the way the terms are thrown around.
Realistically, I’ll never stop these types of slights. They bug me but result in what I’ll call first level insults. It exemplifies a type of stigma that is so pervasive it may never change. I take a passive approach and just smile along when I hear all of the euphemisms people have for psychosis. A more egregious type of affront has been delivered by people who ask me about my mental health like it’s a joke.
In preparation for the release of my recently completed memoir, I’ve been opening up in stages. At first, I only discussed my bipolar diagnosis with family and close friends. As I opened the aperture on my real life to more people, I’ve experienced stigma with a ferocity that surprised me.
“Are you crazy now?” I was asked at a family reunion.
“Shouldn’t you leave that on a therapist’s couch? Why do we need to know?” That came from a friend who thought my disclosure was way too much for her taste. These types of statements speak volumes about the people asking the questions, rather than me. I still felt slapped.
But the third level of stigma, which is even more dangerous, is the discrimination or social shunning I’ve experienced. After almost three years of working for a business partnership, I decided to disclose my diagnosis. There has been much written about the perils of disclosing a mental health condition on the job. On one hand, if no one knows, supposedly they can’t hold it against you. On the other, if you disclose, you can get accommodations if you need them. I felt confident in my abilities and my work was exemplary. I wanted to have the freedom to be myself in the office. I told the people I worked for I had bipolar affective disorder. Six weeks later, I was walked to my car with a smattering of hastily assembled personal items in a box. They called it eliminating my position, but the timing was more than coincidental.
I’ve lost friendships over the years as well. Well meaning people say, “They weren’t real friends” yet I was crushed at the time. Some folks encouraged me to sue my employers, but I chose to take a different tack. I used the time to finish my book. I don’t regret my decision to be open about my mental health status, yet I know it comes with risk. It’s in being open and sharing our stories that we fight the stigma.
I’ve lived most of the past thirty years in abject terror of being found out I have a mental illness. I no longer have that fear. I’m also realistic enough to know disclosure closes some doors for me. Stigma is real and it hurts. I’m willing to work for the time we can stand on our own merits and mental illness will not have the added burdens of shame and stigma it does today.