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.

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I’m furious, and broke

It’s not even the end of the month, and the non-paycheck isn’t stretching as much as it needs to. I need groceries, I need to pay hydro and I need to pay for dental work.

The part-time job I thought I had fell through, and I know I am not really in good enough shape to look for another one. This one was perfect, doing work for a company I have worked for in the past with people I already know, doing things I already know how to do. The thought of trying to find some other place to take me on terrifies me right now. The whole process of applying, interviewing and landing a job is scary all on its own, but the thought of having to learn new people, new places and new procedures seems daunting and more than a little overwhelming.

I don’t qualify for welfare, because my husband works, and I am too functional for disability support, pittance that it is. Disability support wouldn’t even cover our rent, and the cost of moving is prohibitive all on its own.

I’m angry. Seething actually, that an intelligent, well-educated woman can’t support herself. My depression and anxiety are stopping me from going out and getting a job, and I can’t get any other support. I am beating myself up for being so useless, but on an intellectual level I understand that this is not really my fault. Intellect isn’t all it’s cracked up to be on this one.

I could hit up my family, again, but the humiliation is more than I can handle at the moment, and they have already gone above and beyond for me. The financial support they have given me so that I can go to school is much appreciated, but it always comes with strings. No matter how well-meaning they are, ‘suggestions’ about how I should live my life, and what my priorities – or my husband’s priorities – should be are not helpful and they make me feel like a child. Feeling like a child is not really conducive to improving my self-esteem and confidence.

Almost everyone I know with mental health issues is broke, close to broke, in debt or barely making it. Financial stability or at least some measure of security is important. Financial stress is one of the strongest influences on my mental health, and from my experience it is that way for most people. How is it that I am expected to be building myself up, strengthening my psyche and getting well while at the same time trying to figure out if I can afford milk?

I need a job to get better, but I need to be better to get a job. How is this going to work out? It’s not like I want the state to support me in a luxurious lifestyle. I’m not looking for a holiday, or a new outfit. I just want there to be some sort of short-term system that I can tap into for a few months to keep things going until I can get my act together. Medical EI? Yeah, that only works if you have been paying into it for a certain number of weeks, and my last job was contract so it doesn’t count. Catastrophic insurance? Also not an option, I don’t have any. No insurance company will cover me for anything related to my mental health because I have a pre-existing condition.

I know this is a lot of complaining, but realistically I am not alone in this. I see this happening over and over again to people I know. Poverty is a significant contributing factor in mental illness.

From The Canadian Mental Health Association (Ontario)

“For persons who are poor and predisposed to mental illness, losing stabilizing resources, such as income, employment, and housing, for an extended period of time can increase the risk factors for mental illness or relapse.”

We are so focused, in North America, on individuality, on personal responsibility, that we are putting people like me at risk of relapse. Relapse, for me, means possible hospitalization and that, as I have said before, is really expensive. Even beyond mental health issues we seem to be unable to focus on prevention.

We would rather punish people after they have committed a crime than put social supports in place to reduce the things, like poverty for example, that breed crime. We seem to be willing to risk the life and health of citizens to avoid paying for preventative programs. The mayor of Canada’s largest city just voted to refuse $300,000 in free federal funding to support at-risk kids. This in the same week as a gang-related shooting in a major mall that killed two people and injured several innocent bystanders.

We starve the system of support for seniors to the point where they can’t afford to stay in their homes and end up in long-term care or hospitals. Both are very expensive when compared to personal support workers and home care. That is not even taking into account the quality of life issues that arise when you hospitalize someone who would rather live out their life at home, or even in hospice. We don’t even have a system for supporting families that are trying to care for their aging parents and grandparents.

Other jurisdictions, including places like Germany and Sweden, have a philosophy of preventative intervention, of acting to prevent crises and expensive acute care or incarceration. Of course they are, gasp, more socialist and, double gasp, European, but really do I care what we call it if people get what they need? Sure Europe is in a financial mess right now, but not all of it is due to an out-of-control health care system, and Sweden and Germany are doing pretty well all things considered.

Out of personal interest I would like some income support, to get me through this rough part, to keep me from losing my marbles trying to feed myself. I would like it if disability support were not based exclusively on the premise that you will not recover, and if it were enough to raise a person above (or at least to) the poverty line. At a community level, though, I want more support for the vulnerable before they end up in crisis, not just out of self-interest, and not just for reasons of social justice (although that should count for a great deal). We can’t afford the health care system, the welfare system and the corrections system as they are set up now. You hear it in every budget speech, in every ‘austerity’ program proposed. If the system is broken – fix it! Look for lower cost alternatives like preventative measures, supportive measures, things that will allow people to get into, or get back into the work force. Don’t make us suffer to the point where we get acutely ill, or get into a gang, or end up in long-term care. That costs way too much in money and in human suffering.

Invest in people a little. Put some money into the system, up front, and in a smart way. It will pay off long term.

I’m hoping some person I helped out in the past will turn out to be fabulously wealthy, hate all their relatives and leave me their vast fortune. Realistically, it’s more likely than winning the lottery. I’m a nice person and have helped a whole bunch of people out over the years. Hey, it could happen!

Some of it will go to groceries, for sure. I would, however, spend a lot of it supporting people like me that just need a few months of cash to keep the roof over their heads while they figure out how to move forward. Yeah, I’m really hoping that little old lady who fell down the stairs in 1989 has a vast fortune, and an ungrateful nephew who is just out for her millions. I’m still hoping the people of Ontario and our elected representatives will wake the hell up and shake up their priorities, but given my level of pessimism right now a wealthy widow is looking like my best option. Sad.