The Stigma of the Stigmatized (Originally Published 11/16/12)

“No one seemed to hear him
So he leafed through a magazine
And, yawning, rubbed the sleep away
Very sane he seemed to me”
– David Bowie, “Look Back in Anger”

            I knew almost immediately that my bipolarity would cause problems.  Aside for the expected mood swings and anger issues it brought on, I also recognized that some people do not easily understand the concept of mental illness.  As I told my friends about my diagnosis I got a variety of responses.  Some had no idea what bipolar disorder was or what the symptoms were.  One response was, “Bipolar, is that a real thing?”  Almost all my friends were supportive, but there were one or two who refused to accept mental illness as real and therefore my depression was merely weakness.   I am glad that this response was the exception rather than the rule. Losing one or two acquaintances I can deal with.  It’s a few less statuses for me to read on Facebook.  My close friends have been far more accepting.  My employers, well not so much.  I already described the last conversation I had with the school president.  Even over the phone I could tell he was uncomfortable.  It actually made me laugh, yet I know that many people with mental illness get treated like this regularly, and that is nothing to laugh at.

            It seems that most people’s instinct is to treat someone with bipolar disorder, or any mental illness, with kid gloves.  I have oftentimes been dealt with as if I am in some way overly fragile.  Obviously I appreciate everyone who has offered support, and it’s a long list of those who have, but just as important is being treated just the same as I always was.  Granted, I’ve done things in the midst of manic episodes that I had kept secret for a long time, and I understand that, but I am still the same person I was.

            I feel that being wild and unpredictable is a big part of the stigma attached to bipolar disorder, the idea that those with mental illness are not in control of their own actions.  Bipolar disorder doesn’t really work that way.  I indeed can be, when not on my meds, more impulsive, but not really out of control.  I could have, at any point not done cocaine or spent outrageous amounts of money, but I ultimately chose to do them.  It is my fault, and I take responsibility for those actions, and many others as well.  I will not explain away my actions simply because I am bipolar.  I am bipolar and I made bad decisions, and therefore I need to deal with the consequences.  Now, that I am in therapy and back on my meds, I am still the same person, except now I hopefully will make better choices and I am emotionally capable of handling the consequences.  I prefer to be around other people and out of the house as much as I can, but not because I feel the need to be supervised, but because being home in front of the TV means I am not accomplishing anything and I am isolating myself; something which, for me, leads back to depression.  Also, my friends are amazing people and I enjoy being around them.  The more I am out and being normal, and being treated as such, releases me from the stigma of mental illness.

            Lately there has been much about bipolar disorder on the news, mostly because of two celebrities: Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lark Voorhies.  Catherine Zeta-Jones admitted to the press a few months ago that she is bipolar, and former Saved by the Bell actress Lark Voorhies denied she was bipolar after several bizarre public incidents.  These represent the two sides of my argument.  Catherine Zeta-Jones is trying to raise awareness of this disease and break the stigma that is attached to it.  Lark Voorhies, if she is bipolar, is doing a great disservice to many by reinforcing the stereotype.

            My goal in starting this blog was twofold: first, to get writing again, and in that work through my own issues while hopefully providing some entertainment for the readers.  The second goal was a little loftier; trying to raise awareness of bipolar disorder and in my own way help to stop the stigma and the stereotype of mental illness.  I’ve joked many times in this blog and on Facebook about being crazy, or nuts, or mad, or…you get the idea, but the bottom line is I still want to be treated the same as always and I have always been crazy.

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