The Stigma Of Mental Illness Is Why I am Ashamed
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I don't want to keep a secret
A new friend I had recently met was coming to my house for a weekend visit. This was going to be the first time she spent time at my house. After she arrived and settled in, she begin browsing through my bookshelves. She commented on the amount of books I had on bipolar disorder and mental illness. "Are you crazy"? she asked seriously. Looking back at me with a cock-eyed sneer. I shamefully and immediately told her no, "I just like a variety of books." Her response should have been my first red flag. "Oh, because I don't do crazy" she said matter of fact.
Some of us more often ignore that first red flag. I should of been angry, but I was not, I was ashamed, ashamed of revealing my mental illness, ashamed I even had a mental illness. What I should of said was, "well then I guess you better get in your car and go back where you came from." But I unfortunately didn't. I chose to hide my bipolar illness instead. Because I was completely ashamed. On every level. I was more worried about what she would of thought of me than the actual direction of the friendship.
This woman most likely would not, and could not empathize with someone who had a mental illness. So my first line of defense was to stay silent for a few weeks to see were the friendship might go. It may not have been necessary to reveal my mental health history at all. Why reveal anything if I didn't have to? It was obvious she couldn't possibly grasp what it meant to be mentally ill. It was not part of the perfect world she chose to live in.
What good would it do her to know I was diagnosed at 33, during a lengthy hospital stay resulting from a psychotic manic episode so severe I was lucky to have made it out alive? The voices were so intensely loud I could hear nothing else. The outrageous erratic behaviors I adopted, drinking, impulsive sex, self-injury, and god-like beliefs. The extreme happiness I felt, and then before my very eyes I plummeted into an abyss so deep I thought I'd never return. Did she really need to know this about me when I wasn't even sure of the relationship?
This same cycle would repeat itself over and over, year after year. So I ask does she really want or need to hear this? Does not telling her make for a real friendship? Does it make me a liar? The question is when to tell her if at all. Is there even a right time to tell someone such a thing? There is no easy way to share this kind of information. Not for me anyway. Especially with someone who disregards mental illness as a bad joke, believing it is something psychiatrists created to get paid.
And when you do reveal your secret, you need to be ready for them to turn around and walk out the door. Not everybody is willing to live with someone who has a mental illness. Or even willing to gain the knowledge of that mental illness, so be prepared for that rejection.
From experience I am inclined to think it is probably better to bring it up early. With little time invested in the relationship. I have waited to tell, and that proved disastrous. And I have told early on as well. The rejection was much easier early on. It really depends on the person and what their feelings are about mental illness. But you really need to do what feels right to you. And telling her didn't feel right at the time. I could have saved myself a ton of grief. For us both had I shared my secret. It also would have been easier had the stigma of mental illness didn't overwhelm me.
So the idea is to choose wisely. Tread lightly and expect the worse, because you never know what the other person is going to do. This particular person was the meanest, most uncaring person I had ever met in my entire life. She was not as she seemed when I first met her. She told me what a freak I was, that I was a liar, and should be put in a nuthouse with the rest of the freaks. So you see? Not everyone can handle being told you have a mental illness. People like her are the ones who perpetuate stigma, and keep it going.
I gently told this person I had bipolar about three months after we met. Perhaps I should have said yes when she asked about the books. But I was not prepared to do so at that time. So then perhaps maybe I am a liar. But I am not a freak because I have a mood disorder. I tried to no avail to explain and teach her about my disorder, but she would not hear of it. It didn't fit into her world. I was just another fruitcake psycho in her eyes.
"There is no such thing as a chemical imbalance" she said. "And you know this how"? I asked in return. She just stated that she knew it was a bunch of crap. So I guess that proves everything doesn't it? So perhaps you can see my reluctance with revealing my bipolar disorder to anyone. Shame is a hard one to let go of. It isn't like saying I have an illness like diabetes, or high blood pressure, it is more of a reflection of who I am. And being mentally ill makes me uncomfortable.
But if I do not reveal it, there is no way to stomp out the stigma, right? People are who they are. I have bipolar, that does not make me a freak. As much as some people might see it that way, for me, it does not make it so. Happily, that person is no longer part of my life. I choose my friends a little bit more wisely these days. I try to conquer stigma instead of suffocating it, but I still struggle with saying I am bipolar. no matter how understanding someone seems or appears to be. I am ashamed. Period.