coming out of the closet … for World Mental Health Day

Okay, so I’m over a week late on this, since WMH Day was on the 11th, but better late than never, right? Actually, I’ve been thinking about posting this for a while now. I’ve posted some things about my disorders but feel most comfortable posting about my physical health. It seems that my physical health has always been fodder for public consumption. If nothing else, having physical problems seems so ordinary to me because I’ve always had them. When you’re born with cancer, doctors, nurses, hospitals, needles, and the like are normal parts of everyday life. Growing up, I had more “friends” who were health care professionals than I did kids my own age. When you’re a child with a compromised immune system, play dates are out of the question. Hell, even my own sister had to stay with my grandparents from time to time just in case she brought some germy germs home from school with her. Physical health problems were just a part of my life, like bedtime and CareBears. And (at least when you’re a child) physical health problems don’t carry the same stigma that I’ve found to be true as an adult woman. Sure there were some kids who were afraid they might “catch” my cancer or who made mean jokes, but adults mostly felt sorry for me and, not knowing that there was anything wrong with this, I accepted it along with the spinal taps, months of hospital incarcerations (as I now think of them, though at the time I was the beloved daughter of the pediatric oncology wing), blood draws, IVs, surgeries, and so on. Also, as a child with cancer you’re encouraged to talk about your illness and how you feel physically at any given moment. Doctors need that information and so do primary caregivers. When I was six and got the chicken pox, I just laid down without telling anyone and I was then hospitalized for over a week. So, saying “I don’t feel good” when you’re a recovering cancer patient generally means that you’re coming down with more than just the sniffles. Let’s just say that once you’ve had multiple spinal taps, you revise the meaning of pain.

When med school students and interns are brought into your exam room on a regular basis so they can see the physical manifestations of one or more of your rare disorders, you kinda lose your shyness and to be frank, your physical problems seem to be part of the panopticon. Private and public get really blurry once you’ve had your ass hanging out of a dressing gown while twelve interns take turns looking at your eyes through a scope to see “this truly rare manifestation of Horner’s syndrome.” However, mental illness was a thing of silence and whispers. It was self-medicating relatives and suicides discussed as gun “accidents.” It was a little girl who would stay awake for three days straight before collapsing from exhaustion. I was nine years old and though it’s rare for children to exhibit signs of bipolar disorder at such a young age, my doctor and I determined that this was likely my first manic “episode.” It was my ninth birthday. Yes, that’s right; I have bipolar disorder.

Now here’s the laugh riot: I’m fine disclosing the details of my physical health (we’ve been over that), and I’m even okay talking about my primary PTSD and chronic depression diagnoses, though I shy away from the details. I’m not as strong as the bloggers who are participating in my dissertation research, though they are helping me get stronger. So, back to the point: admitting that I’m bipolar is harder. I don’t even like telling healthcare professionals about it. I feel such a strong stigma surrounds it that I am quick to qualify that I have Bipolar-II and not Bipolar-I. In other words, I have hypomanic episodes rather than manic and since my diagnosis is Bipolar-I with melancholic features, I have more pronounced depressive episodes. I don’t get psychotic. I don’t go on crazy shopping or gambling binges. My mania is not dangerous; my depression is. When I’m in manic phase, I’m super-productive and while I might speak a little faster than usual and seem overly energetic, I am for the most part indistinguishable from the “average” person. My depression on the other hand tends towards anhedonia. Sometimes I just feel “down” but the bad times are when nothing makes me happy. And yes, I become suicidal. This is why I am on (and probably always will be on) medication. Even typing this scares me. I fear the stigma. I’m afraid that potential employers will read about this and my physical health problems and decide not to hire me. Maybe even decide not to interview me. In spite of the fact that there are laws against it, it still happens.

Stigma happens. And I’m afraid of the stigma associated with mental illness. I don’t want to be defined by any of my illnesses. I want to be known as me not as some diagnostic code on a doctor’s office form. And that would be all well and good if I was the only one. But I’m not and coming out of the psychiatric closet is the first line of defense against stigma. I encourage you to come out of the closet like I have. Like my research participants have. Read Seaneen / The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive — Stigma of the Self and revolt against the stigma of the self.

2 thoughts

  1. The weird thing is: I never knew any of those things about you when we were kids. I just knew you as the pretty girl who had a thing for Tennyson and Shakespeare at a time when all the other kids we knew were only interested in hunting or cotillion.

    I guess that’s just my way of saying that there are some of us who never defined you by your illnesses — mental or physical — and never will. Good on ya for coming out.

  2. Thanks, Britton. I much prefer being thought of in relation to literature preferences than I do being associated with illnesses. I think that my big surprise is that anyone actually thought of me as “pretty.” 🙂

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