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Mental Illness Stigma

June 1st, 2018

It’s hard to know what to say about stigma. It’s so sneaky and prevalent. A lot to be unpacked. I’m sure this post will only scratch the surface. But those of us with mental illness face it quite frequently.

From people with a bad experience or two, to those afraid of what they see on TV. Parents concerned about your relationship with their offspring. Those who just don’t want to show you the compassion you deserve. Trying to be a parent with Mental Illness and facing flack. And finally those who refuse to separate you from the symptoms. There are all kinds of sources.

Remember you are not your symptoms.

Some of the stigma I have faced broke my heart. But some people were worth reaching out to and reassuring. I can only share from my experiences. But I’m a fierce fighter of stigma and my refusal to be ashamed has blown back a few doors.

Let me make this clear upfront. Stigma comes from the frightened and the insecure. It is not you. It is them. You’ll see.

An Overview

Keep in mind I’m wide open about my bipolar I with psychotic symptoms. I don’t hold back from explaining that I am on all the meds I can be, and still sometimes I hear voices, hallucinate, or get minor delusions. Some of them are quite scary. And all mental illness can get worse as you age, and then sometimes mellow out as you really age. But not all are that lucky.

As an example of symptoms: Recently I was woken up at 4:00am by a very loud banging at the door. I struggled into some clothes, got to the door. And no one was there. I took my morning pills and went back to bed. Exactly two hours later I heard my spouse say. “I can’t help you with that.” Turned over, and they were dead asleep. They don’t talk in their sleep. But I did really need to get up early for emergency work stuff. So I figured my subconscious was being “an ‘elpful asshole” again.

A couple of days later, I was woken up at 6:00am by an extremely loud voice that said "You are forgetting something." I did need to get work done but man my subconscious is insistent.

Some of my psychotic symptoms I ignore, and some of them scare me. But I’m treated to the gills and awfully close to the middle of the spectrum between Bipolar and Schizophrenia. Yes, hanging very near schizoaffective disorder. But not quite.

Let me give you an example of my personal crazy,
and how it’s received.

Depending on where someone lies on the spectrum how severe it is, and the individual’s response to medication treatment can be really easy, or it can just take the edge off. Going from not that bad to holy shit. I live with having to challenge negative voices because that’s the best we can do and I’m good at it now. And some of my voices are positive.

People get a little creeped out if I explain I get my religious knowledge directly from my God. (I’m a Druid dedicated to Bran) They no longer want to engage with me in conversations about a religion because they think I haven’t studied others. (I have)

Yes Bran talks to me and I recognize his voice. Other voices try to play tricks. But I know when it’s him. And sometimes I talk to ghosts. Which was difficult to learn to separate from regular bullshit in my brain. Ghosts can be hard to hear, and I could go into a tangent on how I learnt to separate them. But it’s another thing that makes people back off. “Oh no, not a crystal waving nut.”

What about bishops who talk to their God and the saints? Are they crazy?

One can ignore my beliefs all they want. I recognize they could all be delusions. But my psychiatrist knows about them, and deemed my God harmless because he is in my life as a force for good, and encourages occasional doubt as a sign that I am not just a mindless follower.

But either people believe me, or they think I’m totally crazy.

Here’s the thing though. Where’s the harm? I recognize my subconscious could have found a way to talk to me directly. Or I could be meeting my God when I die. Personally I believe in the latter. But I do not deny the former is possible. But I need my religion. I need my faith. So I have dedicated myself to it.

You can call it a crutch, and maybe it is. But if you can’t walk without a crutch, what’s wrong with having one?

Stigma

Holy shit. Having a mental illness and faith in a power who talks to you? It really squigs some people out. It drums up images of crazy cult followings, dangerous people who act on orders, and shooters who feel a god or demon told them to do it. Some people get very afraid because they quickly close their minds to anything else said. Fear is controlling them.

Let me make this clear again. Most stigma is from people controlled by their fear.

It doesn’t matter that I have a code of honor. That the foundation of my peronsal faith is based on seven words: Courage, Compassion, Trust, Respect, Loyalty, Tenacity and Wisdom. Do I sound like someone who’s going to believe a God that tells me to go against my creed? No. I still have a healthy dose of skepticism.

Then there is the mildest.

I mutter to myself in public. Relevant things like “oh shit forgot the mayonnaise”, or “Where is… no.. ah! There you are.” If I get anything, it’s strange glances from old ladies. Sometimes people look my way, but when they see I’m trying to find something they just go back to what they were doing. It’s unusual, but it isn’t outside of anyones imagination.

So I get looked at once in a while, that flies under my radar of objections. But it wouldn’t others. And I’ve had days my paranoia screamed at me to get out of the grocery store because I was getting looked at.

I have screamed “I can’t do this anymore” in my car when I was alone. It felt very good. And then I went and did the thing. Talking to yourself can help.

But what is it like?

Part of my life is explaining the bullshit I go through. I usually get a thanks in private. It’s when I’m challenging someone online that things can get interesting.

Just the other day I scolded someone for being cruel about the mentally ill, homeless people who are scared to receive services. They didn’t think why someone would be scared, they just thought they should be pushed out. I know, heartless. But I fully schooled him on why treatment is scary. I never got a reply; sometimes I end conversations.

But I’m a woman with a severe mental illness. So of course I’ve met misogynists who want to shut me up just because I’m a woman. I’ve been told I’m too emotionally involved in the topic when advocating for the mentally ill online. I was being far more calm and measured than the bog-wallowing, spineless, jelly-eyed mudfish that brought that up.

Yes people will try to ignore you for your lived experience. And if you are out, they will try to silence you because measured calm responses creep them out if they think you should be bat-shit-crazy. (One of my favourite terms). They really hate it when you calmly point out their errors. They will double down, and when you are bored of it? Tell them how tired of him you are, but they have real anger issues and should get some therapy. (They really hate that too)

Or if you need, hail me in and let me do it for you. I enjoy cracking my knuckles at this. Feel free to email me.

No really, what's happened to you
Just because you're out as Bipolar I?

I suppose I can't delay this any further. I've explained some of it, the religion, the muttering. But what about just for existing? Yeah I've had people afraid of me just because of my diagnosis.

Most people who follow the stigma are worth avoiding or blowing off. But occasionally it’s from someone you care about. Family you want to reach out to. Someone you’re interested in. Or friends who get it, but have some concerns. (Yes some worries are reasonable)

Among other less memorable events, I’ve faced stigma from someone I was dating who had been crushed by someone else with my condition. From the deep worry of an ex-cop who was only ever called in on violent cases. And mild concern from a nurse practitioner, also having seen the worst. The guy I was dating wasn’t worth the trouble. I wrote a letter to the latter two, and I told my story of treatment to the nurse and it calmed her down. Now she helps me heal from the damage my illness does.

But the ex-cop took longer. So I tried harder. This time with compassion. I asked about his experience. Every single one was awful. Being an officer is traumatizing, frankly. I gave him space to get used to the fact I was responsible. And when I needed to go to the hospital I called 911. Eventually he became comfortable around me, approximately the time I started to feel safe when he was around. For some patience, and time was worth it.

There are some whom have been traumatized by the mentally ill. Those ones are scared. But they have good reason to be. If you need, or want to get to know someone who’s had a rough past? You can do a lot of good for the world by showing them compassion, reason and patience. Their views will change which will help all mentally ill people. But that’s your choice. It’s not your job to fix people. But if you can, for the ones you feel worth it. Then do so.

Sometimes it’s also my personality that gets up someones nose, riddled with veins of my trauma. My sense of presence can make someone think twice when they find out I’m bipolar. I am fearless, more so if you try to fight me. I don’t consider myself below anyone or above. I am outside the system, working with it. People pick up on that and it can be unnerving to them.

But mental illness can do that. Sometimes it’s all you can do to feel like a human being and then someone calls you a psycho just for expressing yourself. Or the one I got and will never forget, from a stranger passing me in the street. “Cuckoo, Cuckoo!” What the fuck did I do to him? I happened to wearing a red felt hat with a black top and layered skirt. I just dared to stand out. I didn’t even see his face. (I sure as hell wasn’t stopping to deal with a back-minded, intrusive, bog-whoppit)

If you are usual in any way (which you can’t help with mental illness), some people try to tear you down just for being different. And sometimes it’s because they resent that you are special in some way, and it makes them feel inferior. So they try to slice you to pieces rather than face their own insecurity. It’s called tallest poppy syndrome. Other poppies hate the tall ones. So they try break them. Sorry homeland, but the Brits are particularly inclined that way. And that’s where I got my “Cuckoo” incident.

Other reasons are shallow assholes who need to make fun of other people just to make themselves feel better about their own, mundane lives. There were times I have slipped so deep in madness I’ve done the strangest things. I’ve deeply bloodied my own leg (I needed stitches the knife was sharper than I realized). And the first person I told, through my weeping, “suddenly had to go”. And never spoke to me again.

I’ve been mocked for my strange ways, my madness shared as juicy gossip without compassion. There is almost nothing more cruel. Finding out it was behind your back, and your so called best friend was sharing every painful secret you confessed in privacy? Yeah that fucking sucked.

It took me a long time to get over that. I think in some ways I never will be. I trust a whole lot less easily. My guard is up most of the time and it’s five times as thick as it used to be. But no one will ever stop me. I got better and now all they know is the crawling stabs at life from someone whose life was at potentially at risk.

When I noticed my friend was talking about people behind their back, I wrote a letter challenging him. Did he really think it never occurred to me what he said behind my back? I never heard from him. I did get a letter from his roommate who tried to deeply wound me to pieces with all the secrets V.K. shared. And last J.B. had checked I was deeply suicidal. If his information was still relevant, it literally could have killed me.

Stigma could have killed me.

But people like this are weak and pathetic. Anyone who needs to make fun of others just to feel good about themselves is a coward who dare not push for their passions, and make their own mark in the world. Stand out on their own merits.

Learn to put a thick wall between you and the spiteful weasels. And trust me, even if you have spent the last three months in bed just trying to do the minimum? You are still stronger then they are. Because they don’t know what a real fight is. By the way. You’ve got this. I believe in you.

I’ve run into hipsters who love mocking others - bitchy little creatures that they are. People who do weird things because they think it makes them interesting. But wow if someone else does something weird because it’s in their nature? Then that’s apparently hilarious.

They seem unaware that weird people do interesting things because they are weird. It’s actually quite irritating. If it was their idea, it was fascinating. If it was yours, there’s something wrong with you.

And then there was the stigma that wasn’t. One that broke the hearts of two people. The one who had to ask about it, and the one who had to say, “It’s okay, you’re a new Dad. It’s reasonable to be concerned.”

I was going to be babysitting with my spouse. And a very close friend, about six years younger than me, was worried about how I would cope with a newborn screaming for help. He felt like an asshole for asking. But it was reasonable. It hurt. I’m willing to admit that. But it wasn’t because he was doing the new dad thing. It was because I realized that for me? That’s a wholly valid question now. In this case it wasn’t stigma. But I’m using it to make a point.

I’m known for shutting down when I’m overwhelmed. I’m known for being so disabled by high piercing sounds I can’t function. And while I have babysat for a lot of people. That was when I was younger. Sometimes when I was manic, but before we knew what was going on. My illness has progressed and I honestly couldn’t say how I would do. But I knew my coping skills would work, and Jarys would be there.

I didn’t do well the first time around, I was insecure. The second time I did better.

This was just a friend, understanding my limits, and afraid for both of us. I love him dearly and hold no resentment.

But I mention it because sometimes a situation like that does come from stigma because there are many people who believe those with mental illness shouldn’t have children of their own, even if they adopt. And there are those who believe the mentally ill shouldn’t be around children.

I have no answer to this. I don’t yet understand it. Why fear us around their children? They just don’t understand that the degrees of illness varies, and some people are perfectly fine with medication. Most mentally ill people who can’t handle children stay the fuck away from them. None of us like to be triggered. We’ll all try to avoid it.

I have a very serious illness, the intensity is strong, and my body is resistant to medication. But I know bipolar parents and their kids are turning out/did turn out just fine.

Honestly, if they found the gene, and could take it out of my child (and I could afford looking after a babe). I would have a child myself. Most of my medications are safe to take while pregnant. I would love to see what my body would build. But I can not face what my parents were forced to. There are some things I know would defeat me. Raising a bipolar child would be one of them, and the genes are strong in my family. So I daren’t risk getting pregnant.

Others do it. Other bipolar parents do it. There is nothing wrong with the mentally ill producing children. But I myself can not.

Do I have a solution to all this? Not much. But I’m a tiny one. I’m fearless. And if you need a voice. I’ll be fearless for you.

Mental illness had turned me into a soldier. And if you’re going to deal with the never ending tide of bullshit that is mental illness, eventually you have to get tough. But stigma on top can be crushing. So some people keep it a secret. That’s why I’m so fucking public. Because many people can’t afford to be, or are having a hard enough time without extra attention.

Please write to me if you want your story told anonymously. I’ll change details and names to keep your secret. Please write to me if there’s a topic you want me to cover or go into more detail about it. Even if it’s personal. My advocacy is being very public about my illness. Particularly here, my website, and the comments section on facebook.

As a side note: My family has been doing mental health for about twenty years. We are steeped in the literature, knowledge of medications, systems to navigate, the ways the government will try to screw you over, all the bullshit and tides. So I come from a place of knowledge. As should everyone with a mental illness. Study, focus, and remember:

No one knows you better than you do. You be you.

Note: Edited on June 8th, 2018 to update style and remove a few errors.

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