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.