It’s no secret to the people closest to me that I live with bipolar disorder. Although it’s not the topic of every conversation, I’m not uncomfortable talking about it. I’m honest about the challenges and equally forthcoming about my progress. That’s not always the case when I meet someone new. With new people, I usually frame the subject a little differently. I’m willing to answer questions and share my story, but I tend to use humor to keep things light. I don’t answer questions this way because I’m ashamed. I’m not. I do it because, over the years, I’ve come to recognize a certain expression that people get when I explain why I can’t have a glass of wine with dinner (alcohol and meds don’t mix) or why I have a pronounced tremor (lithium has some ridiculous side effects!) This is probably the way it is for a lot of people. When you tell someone new that you live with a mental illness, there’s always the risk that they’ll get “that look!” I’m sure you know the one I’m talking about. It’s a smile that begins and ends on the lips. Everything else about their face says they’re afraid, and also a little embarrassed.
When a conversation about mental illness elicits a negative response, it usually comes from a lack of education. People simply don’t know what to expect. Misinformation and the way the mentally ill are portrayed in the media perpetuates that fear. The way we choose our words also has an impact. Count how many times a day someone around you says, “That’s just crazy” or “That guy’s insane.” It can be discouraging to hear a cartoon version of your illness used as a punchline or an insult. It’s not always that way. More and more often, the person with whom I’m speaking shakes their head in recognition. They understand because their life has been impacted in some way. Each year, approximately 43.8 million adults will experience some kind of mental health issue. I believe that sharing my story can be a powerful tool for change. Maybe, if I’m willing to make myself a little bit vulnerable, the people around me will see that I’m not so scary. In my experience, most people want to understand and, if given a chance, are pretty receptive to information
There is one unique challenge with this model of education: we are not allowed to actually BE sick. What I mean is, we are encouraged to talk openly about mental illness, but it’s best if we don’t exhibit any symptoms associated with mental illness. There’s the rub; advocate for an illness that can be complicated and scary but please try not to make others feel uncomfortable. We would never, in a million years, ask this of any other medical condition. I’ve been struggling with this conundrum for quite a while. There are times when it’s impossible not to BE sick. Not long ago, I spent an entire visit with my doctor, tearfully explaining that my migraines had triggered a depressive episode, only to find myself on the receiving end of “that look.” I saw it on the face of a former employer after I requested a few hours off each month to see my therapist. Even my grandmother squishes up her brow and says that I just need to get more sunshine. I guess all this brings me to my point: I don’t know. I don’t know how to force someone to let go of misconceptions. I don’t know how to make the symptoms of mental illness less scary. I don’t always know what to do, but I absolutely do know what NOT to do. Do NOT be silent. Silence feeds stigma and stigma is the enemy. Stigma isn’t just an awkward conversation at a dinner party. The stigma that surrounds mental illness can destroy families, end careers, and even threaten physical safety.
Things that live in the shadows always seem more threatening. That’s why some people choose to shine a light on their own experiences. We share our stories for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we open up because we hope our stories will help reshape perception. The very act of becoming visible can be terrifying but by taking that risk, we put a human face on an otherwise dehumanizing diagnosis. Secondly, being sick is scary, but being sick alone is far worse. When you talk with your coworker, you may be opening the door for him to talk about his brother who was recently diagnosed with schizophrenia. When you talk to your friend at church, she may feel like she can finally tell someone about her struggle with OCD. Your hairdresser’s son attempted suicide last year. Your sister-in-law is recovering from post-partum depression. Your ophthalmologist sees your medication list and nods because she lives with bipolar disorder, too. It’s risky, I know. No one wants to be on the receiving end of “that look!” It’s complicated and I’m certainly no expert. Only you can decide if it’s the right time and place to disclose. At the end of the day, here’s the way I like to think about it: every year, ONE in FIVE adults experiences some kind of mental health issue. That means that ONE in every FIVE adults has a story to share and the other FOUR really need to hear it.