“The problem with stigma around mental health is really about the stories we tell ourselves as a society. What is normal? That’s just a story we tell ourselves.”
– Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook
We are the ones that nobody acknowledges, but everyone talks about. We are grouped into stereotypes, prejudices and stigmas, being this equals that, being that equals this. We have illnesses that are not regarded as illnesses; we are only taken seriously in the worst of cases.
There are hospitals set aside for us, because we’re “special”, because sometimes no amount of medication can make us better. And in “normal” society? We are invisible, our problems disregarded but our labels pasted on our hearts, too afraid to wear them proudly because we cannot with pride be who we truly are, too grossly misunderstood and too marginalised to even begin to accept ourselves, let alone open ourselves to the world.
We know what it is like to sit at home and cower on the floor, too scared to leave our rooms. We know what it is like to want to die, to be threatened by our own inner demons to the point that it is deadly.
Some of us know what it is like to see things that are not there, and hear things that we can’t see. We know what it is like to be plagued by delusions, to be consumed by panic attacks that make us feel like we are dying, and to lose touch with reality and with ourselves.
Yet, the worst of our common experiences comes from the external world, not our internal imbalances. People tell us that we are being “attention seeking”, “immature”, “having the wrong attitude”, “blowing our problems out of proportion” – and, worst of all, “making it up.” People dismiss our diagnoses far too often, with mental illness being portrayed as a myth, as something that is made up by the diagnosed as an excuse, or to gain the attention that we so-called desire.
This begs the question, why on earth WOULD someone wish a mental illness upon himself or herself?
Why someone would wish to be awake all night, and in the day unable to get out of bed, to shower, to eat? Why would someone wish the bruises and cuts we inflict on ourselves out of pure hatred of who we are? Why would someone wish for the dysphoric mania where our thoughts don’t make sense as the world around us spins out of control? Why would someone wish for the constant shivering of a skeletal body, the sickness felt at any sight of food? Why would anyone wish for holding a bottle of pills in our hands, not knowing whether we should swallow them all or not? Why would someone want to dissociate, the external world dissolving into nothing? Why would someone want their relationships destroyed, or for life to be made so difficult by our brains that we isolate ourselves from the world? Why would anyone want to hear voices screaming that aren’t there, or see green slime dripping out from the ceiling? Tell me, why would someone want any of this? Why would WE want any of this?
The answer is, we don’t. Having a mental disorder is not glamorous. Having a mental disorder is not a romantic walk in the park, where brooding creativity flourishes. It can be hell, and it can destroy lives.
Often, disorders are only taken seriously when the severity is so intense that they result in hospital admission. Then the people around us wake up, and we go from being trivialized, romanticized pretenders wanting attention, to being the classic, old-school stigmatization: crazy.
So where is the medium between these two extremes? Where are we welcomed into society, our disorders accepted without the disgrace of being mentally ill?
We needn’t be ashamed, and yet, so many of us are.
I am done being ashamed. I am one of the few among us who is open about her disorder. I tell people I’ve just met, I tell people who ask me why I couldn’t write my exams, I tell people who ask me what I was sick with last year, why I was in hospital. I don’t beat about the bush. I say, “I was admitted to hospital for Bipolar Disorder and Panic Disorder. I am okay now, stable and happy.”
I have come to realise that any person who rejects me because of a chronic illness is not someone I want in my life. It is not the disorder or me that people are so put off by – it is what the external world has defined my disorder to be. I will break this stigma. I will prove those who meet me that my disorder does not define me, and that my disorder does not make me spoiled or damaged.
I am Bipolar, but I am not moody. I am not crazy. I am not attention seeking. I am not a basket case.
I am Bipolar, and I am capable – but this does not mean I want to be Bipolar. My disorder isn’t a means to an end, a method of manipulation, or a way to demand the attention of those around me. My disorder is just that: an illness of the brain, a chemical imbalance totally out of my control. Just like someone with a chronic physical illness, I won’t be “cured”.
Those like me want desperately to be cured – and maybe we do because we are so misunderstood. We are either labelled and ostracized, or disregarded and told that our illnesses are not valid. If only we were normal, we might think, then we wouldn’t have to deal with both the horrors of our illnesses and the rejection of our society.
If only society could help us to deal with our illnesses, not to pity but to support, not to disregard but to understand, not to assume but to learn. It may be wishful thinking, but with enough awareness, enough education and enough openness, perceptions do change. We have already made progress – looking back at the past couple of centuries we can be thankful that we have access to health care without as much judgement. In generations past mental illness was seen as even less legitimate, and treatments were verging on the obscene. From the extremes of lobotomies (the horrors of parts of our past sufferers’ brains being picked to pieces), to the isolative and cruel nature of asylums, to the treatment of post-partum depression via locking women away on “bed-rest” for months – we have indeed made progress, but there is much more to be done.
We are still on the path to full acceptance, an ideal that may never be met – and perhaps we should focus on the people who do accept, who love and who cherish those who have mental illnesses. These are the people who are so important in breaking stigma, in ending trivialization, and in ridding mental illness of its dark past. These are the people who give us hope.
Fundamentally, though, us with mental disorders can bring the change like fire lights wood, slowly at first, and with support from others like us and the people who do accept and understand, we can rise up and burn with full force through the stigma, trivialization and misunderstanding. We can stand up and say, “hey, I have a mental illness, and guess what? I am damn capable.”
Perhaps then, one day, the shame will be banished. Those who feel that searing despair when discovering that they have a disorder, those that are too ashamed to accept their diagnosis, and those that cannot tell those closest too them that they are ill will no longer have to be ashamed. We didn’t choose this life, and we should not have to feel ashamed for living it. We don’t want mental disorders, and we should not have to feel rejected because of these “labels”.
In my lifetime, I hope to see the stigma broken down, the silent speaking up, and the ignorant speculators silenced.
Let us do more than hope – let us stand up and not stand by.