Oh hey stigma, wasn’t expecting to see you there.

You know, I’m pretty lucky. I’ve surrounded myself with people who get me, more or less, and people that have learned from being around me. I have a decent little support network of friends and family who treat me like a human being, and who see me as more than the bipolar girl. In some ways, I’m isolated by their support from the worst of the stigma, and the worst of the discrimination that comes with being mentally ill.

I get it when I apply to jobs, and my spotty resume won’t get me in the door, and I get it in doctors’ offices when their whole tone changes once they see my list of meds. I once went in for a breast lump, and the doctor was all sympathetic and calming. He spoke quietly to me, and said we would figure out what was going on, and that even in the worst case scenario there was a lot that could be done, so don’t panic. Then he saw my meds. Suddenly he changed his tune. I was probably overreacting, you know because crazy people feel breast lumps differently (apparently). He made me feel like I was wasting his time, and I had probably made the whole thing worse by – and I quote – poking at it too much. Tell me that any woman who finds a lump in her breast isn’t going to poke away at that sucker? Turns out it was a blocked duct, but I was humiliated and angered by his behaviour toward me.

So what was the point of this? Oh, right.

I went to a business meeting today. It was a little stressful, because there is scope creep already in the project, and we haven’t even really started yet. The project, which was small and manageable, has been taken over by people with agendas of their own, and, well, that is always a little stressful. Nothing I can’t cope with, to be fair.

So we were discussing the nature of the business, and this is the conversation that happened:

1: So I’d hate to have a bipolar client, you know, and send them back to work, and have them not take their meds or something and then have them kill someone. You really have to have someone handle them that knows what they are doing.

2: Yeah, absolutely. I would hate to have a bipolar teacher working for me (laughs). That would be awful.

1: God, that would be a nightmare

2: For sure.

There are a couple of really obvious things wrong with this conversation. First, um, you do have a bipolar teacher working with you. That would be me. Second, we are not really very likely to run off and kill someone. Research, and common sense, say that bipolar people are a lot more likely to either be killed, or maybe, worst case scenario, kill themselves. So there’s that bit of brain-numbingly wrong thinking. The other thing, is that these people are talking about a program to educate professionals in dealing with people on disability, for physical and psychological reasons. I’m not really wild about them being in charge of the education of professionals if that is what they really think about people like me, and honestly, I wonder what else they are thinking.

I was going to say something, something non-identifying but clear, but thought better of it. The last thing I want to do is be out to people like this. I need the work, and I can imagine all the strange and insidious things that would inevitably lead to my not getting the contract, or that my role would gradually be phased out. I’ve been hidden about who I am at work before, and while it is a bit soul-crushing, I can do it. If it gets to be a pattern, I may end up opening my big mouth, but I’m going to have to prove my worth to them first, or get so far into the project that they can’t do it without me before I take a risk like that. Yeah, that’s what I’ll tell myself.

I forget how pervasive the stigma of mental illness is sometimes. I forget how dangerous it is. I forget that many mental health and disability specialists think we are all on the verge of forgetting one pill and then going on a rampage. I forget because my life is protected, and then it rears up and hits me in the face at a meeting of educated, privileged, socially responsible women.

To her credit, my boss, who has known me my whole life, looked like she was going to kill someone, but she bit her tongue, because she didn’t want to risk outing me. She wrote me a very wonderful email from the other side of the room (smartphones have some serious advantages). She was shocked, but after the original sting was gone, I realized I actually wasn’t. This is much more representative of how people see individuals like me. I had just forgotten, safe in my little bubble of people who see me as I really am.

I have the choice to be hidden. I have the option of avoiding stigma at business functions because, these days, I can pass for a sane person. I can quickly suck back an anti-anxiety med and get through any stressful business meeting. I can put on grown-up woman clothes and hoist my laptop on my back, and go off and play normal person for as long as I need to. I’m very privileged that way these days. The meds are doing what they are supposed to, the therapy is working, and for the most part, I am just living my life.

There are a lot of people who can’t get away with what I get away with. There are people who can’t pull their act together right now, and can’t put on a happy face and go to a stupid meeting. Not because they are any different from me, but because they are at a different point in their recovery, or they are deep in a messy place, or a dark hole. I’ve been that person too. For them, the stigma, the misconceptions, the ignorance and the flat-out hatred and contempt, are pretty life threatening.

Being seen as an inherently violent person, or someone for whom dangerous crazy is just one pill below the surface, puts you at risk. People call the police. The police overreact. People get incarcerated, formed, and sometimes shot. It sounds like hyperbole, but once you have people in authority who assume you are a physical threat, anything can happen. In my city, there have been a string of mentally ill people shot to death by the police in the past few years, and most recently, a disturbed teen armed with a pen knife was reportedly shot 8 times, and then tasered, on a streetcar. In the same time period, a sane man, armed with a loaded gun was disarmed by the police, and lived to tell about it. The stigma surrounding the disturbed, the mentally ill, and the generally unhinged, is not something that just makes life a little more difficult.

So maybe I should have said something in the meeting. Maybe my fear of being outed, my fear of losing a contract, was cowardly. I’m not really sure. Maybe I let an opportunity to change someone’s mind slip past me, out of fear. Maybe the stigma actually prevented me from doing the right thing. Maybe those people, at that meeting, will continue to blindly wander about in their ignorance. Maybe one of them will fire a mentally ill person, on some trumped up charge. Maybe one of them will not invite a relative to a gathering, because there will be children there, and you can never know what those people will do. I don’t know.

All I know for sure, is that I was unprepared to deal with stigma in that meeting. I wasn’t expecting it. I had this false sense that people who work in human services know something. I was wrong. I should have expected it. I let down the team. It won’t happen again.

Damn. {spoiler} SI

You know those days? I mean the ones that get away from you. You have plans, you have obligations, maybe you are supposed to meet someone for dinner, maybe you just have work to do, or a blog thingy to write. Best laid plans, eh?

So, a couple of days ago I was sitting on the couch. It was early, since I don’t really sleep much past 5, and my husband had already left for the early shift. (Why does this stuff always happen in the semi-dark?) I was fine. Fine. Fine. And then suddenly, I wasn’t.

To be fair, it has been a rough few weeks. I barely have any work, and my husband was off work for a bit with a dislocated shoulder. There was one week where we had $7, and half a carton of milk. That was a little dicey. There were acres of time, and nothing to fill them with, sitting next to an empty fridge and half a bag of cat food.

But back to the couch.

Suddenly, without any real warning, all of the little lies that mental illness tells you wormed their way out of whatever corner of my brain they hide in when I’m well. Sort of like herpes simplex B viruses that lurk until you get a sunburn, and then wham, cold sore, but with more consequences. The speed at which I went from placid, dull stream, to angry, anxious tidal wave, was a little overwhelming.

I tried all of my coping stuff – sort of. The breathing, the talking to myself, but all of that is hard when you are shaking and crying and you pretty much feel like you deserve to be that miserable so why try to fight it?

The rest of the day was a write-off.

Being the good little mental patient I am, I took the benzo I’m supposed to take when I can’t calm myself down. The idea is the benzo will help the situation from escalating to the point where I have a panic attack or crash in a really bad way. This usually works, but there was a bit of a problem. My fascination with sharp objects was sort of back. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Bits of glass. Sigh.

I was really good when I moved. I threw out all my stuff. All the little chips of glass , the broken bits of plastic and all the rest of the sharp things. I was proud of myself. Unfortunately, I was really unhappy about that now.

Ultimately I found something, and I did a bit of damage. Nothing major. No wound management. Just a smear of polysporin, and a whole lot of explaining when my husband got home. The trouble is, the damn thing works. The anxiety basically vanished. What the hell. How did I end up here again? No wearing a bathing suit in front of my normal friends for a few weeks for me.

So here’s what happened.

The benzo is dis-inhibiting. It can be sort of like being drunk. Sometimes I just sleep, but when my thoughts are really swirling around sharp things, it can get dangerous. The last thing I need when I am fighting something like self-injury is a hit to my decision-making abilities, and I had kind of forgotten that.

The benzos work really well for anxiety, I don’t want to totally knock them, but when you are working with dodgy safety issues, lowering you inhibitions is not really something you want to be messing around with.

So I fell off the wagon, and I’m not really happy about it. I’m trying to figure out if this is a giant red flag, flying on a pole over my couch, or if it was just a really bad day, and some iffy decision-making. I’m not really sure yet. On the one hand, I’ve blown 2 years of good behaviour, but on the other, that two years came from not beating myself up over slip ups, and not spending a lot of time promising myself I would never do it again. Taking that pressure off has been really good for me, but I could feel the shame/berating myself thing creeping back later in the day.

I think I’m ok. I’ve poked and prodded my brain over the last few days, and nothing is leaking out. I’ve had some horrific dysmenorrhea the last couple of months, and that always feels like bone-crushing depression, but all the other signs are good. I think I just have to chalk this up to a bit of not paying attention, and a higher level of anxiety than I’ve had in a while.

I’m in one of those phases where everyone is telling me how fabulously I’m doing, and how all the troubles are behind me, but you know what? They never are. I can have months, or years of really good, stable times, but if I let my concentration go, if I stop paying really close attention, it gets away from me. You can question whether mental illness is a biological entity, or a social construct, or some cool, unique feature of my personality that makes me creative and special, but when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter.

In the semi-dark, when it’s just me and the cats and my thoughts, it still behaves like a chronic illness. I still have to deal with it every day. It doesn’t go away, and when I pretend that it has, it sneaks up on me. The lying, cheating beast that is mine slinks up to my ear and whispers the litany of all the horrible things I’ve ever done, and all the people I’ve ever hurt, and all the things that will always be wrong. Even though some part of me knows it isn’t really true, and that I’m not evil incarnate, I buy it.

So I need to be more careful. I need to get more sleep, and I need to deal with the stress in my life. The risk of thinking that everything is ok is not really one I should be taking. Recovery doesn’t mean you can leave mental illness behind you. It just means you figure out how to continue living with that particular piece of luggage on your rack.

Oh, and I didn’t make it to dinner. Sorry.