The Sting of Stigma

(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.

Colleen

19 Replies to “The Sting of Stigma”

  1. Wow. Colleen, this choked me up as a fellow bipolar and I completely understand how so many things become difficult to handle after having a breakdown. People use the terms crazy, nuts, etc. so readily, but there’s a political correctness for describing other issues. I don’t understand that. The stigma against bipolar is rampant and like you, I have lost friends. I haven’t lost my teaching position, but my colleagues treat me very differently since I revealed my mental illness 3 years ago. Thank you for this post and I’m looking forward to reading your memoir. Kristi xoxo

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Kristi. Disclosure certainly has become a sifter of sorts. In no time, people either supported me or made themselves scarce. I’m grateful for the comments.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you show incredibly bravery to even talk about this let alone discuss it with family and friends! I was very worried about admitting depression especially to my alpha male managers at work but was very lucky to find a sympathetic ear. I wasn’t treated as weak but more respectful as I had been able to admit it. I agree stigmas still exist but thankfully I feel the world we live in today is far more accepting of mental health issues

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the support and I’m happy to learn your experience with disclosing at work went well. I hope to soon agree with your last statement. Unfortunately, I’m not quite there yet.

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  3. Tis sad that so many people don’t know how to cope with such honesty or deal with their own fear factor. Their fear is marked by this sort of flippancy masquerading as humour (in their eyes).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. I also felt moved to discuss how these hurtful, flippant comments are common in conversations. There really is a double standard. Thanks for the insightful comments.

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  4. It is so tiring to live in the fear of being found out. I’m just starting my journey of being more open and authentic, because I am so tired of living two lives. Although it sucks that you lost your job, I totally applaud you revealing your diagnosis so that you can be you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was the one who did leaving people behind. I am so proud of it. And you, you are a warrior.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you so much for your honesty in this post. I live from a similar place in regards to stigma. I’ve yet to reach the point you’re at though. I stand in awe of your writing and truth 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, if stigma weren’t so pervasive we’d all be able to discuss our mental health journeys openly. I would love to be able to say, “You’ve got nothing to lose by opening up” but there are no guarantees. And so we do the best for our own situations. Thank you for the lovely compliments.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I am just taking my first tentative steps towards adding my voice to the growing numbers who are speaking up about mental illness and I thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sorry you experienced what you did, my heart aches. But, I take comfort from knowing there are many voices speaking up and the more we do the louder we will become and less easy to ignore. Take care

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I commend you for taking steps to add your voice. One voice at a time, like yours, once spoken, will add to the collective truth about the experience of mental illness. Thank you for your comments and for speaking out against the stigma.

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  9. I have been public about my diagnosis for about 2 years now. Similar things happened to me. I didn’t talk about it for the first 12 years that I was diagnosed. I haven’t been fired, yet, but I have been let go from a few positions. People haven’t said anything to my face, but I see them giving me weird looks, or avoiding me. People that used to like me no longer talk to me. I’ve had many people unfriend/unfollow me across social media. These are all things that I’ve had to learn how to let go. It hurts, but there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve also had many people be supportive too. I’m grateful my immediate family was supportive. Like you, I wouldn’t take back the decsion to “come out of the closet.” Even if people aren’t receptive, they need to hear our stories. And people have told me that I’ve helped them, so that means the world to me. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Hi Brie,
    You’ve posted a wonderful comment here. I’m sorry for the stigma you’ve endured. It’s knowing it might have negative consequences and getting your story out there anyway that matters. I admire your strength and courage. Thank you so much for your words of vulnerability and honesty. They mean the world to me too.
    Colleen

    Liked by 2 people

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