Walking a Fine Line with Mental Illness

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Never would I have thought that going to see the movie “X-Men: First Class” would have hit on an issue in my life that I grapple with from time to time. I am not going to be a spoiler (and the movie was boss eh!), but a particular theme of the movie struck me on a very deep level. It was the whole issue that, initially, mutants felt they had to live undercover because humans wouldn’t accept their differences, and would be prejudiced against them. The whole issue of whether to remain concealed or to be ‘out’ and proud ran through the entire movie.
As I went home that night, I began to re-examine this issue in my own life.
Over the last few years, I would see homosexuals or persons living with HIV/AIDS doing public interviews and speaking about their own issues with coming out the closet to friends, family, and the general public. I can and do relate because I live it every day – with mental illness. I have bipolar disorder, more commonly known as manic depression.
I accept it for what it is. I stay as healthy as possible, I take my medication, and then I go ahead, living my usual busy lifestyle, which, right now, is dominated by trying to complete my bachelor’s degree. Having this illness comes with its drawbacks, like any other chronic illness, and I just do what is within my control to mitigate it, so that I can continue living as normally as possible. However, there is one factor that I cannot control. The factor that has me walking a fine line ever since my diagnosis nine years ago, which is how will people react to the news that I have a mental illness?
Upon diagnosis, I was deathly afraid of what people would think of me, especially after that dreaded stay in the infamous St. Ann’s Hospital. I walked around with a quiet, decent dose of paranoia about being ‘outed’ because I knew of the level of discrimination that people faced after having been there for treatment. A few years later, that level was really confirmed by an acquaintance who also had the illness, but was treated privately. She said: “As long as you doh have your [admittance] papers nobody can say you are mad. They can’t be sure”.
It’s not just John Public I needed to be wary of. I got a shock when the very psychiatrist who treated me at the time (thankfully he isn’t treating me now) said that perhaps I can’t handle all the hard brainwork needed to do a degree. I shot back, “Doc, I just got an A in Statistics last semester. It isn’t my higher level thinking that is impaired. I have a mood disorder”. This was the level of prejudice that I faced from people who were intimately acquainted with the workings of mental illness.
I also faced discrimination in my personal life. In one case, the knowledge of my diagnosis (not me manifesting any symptoms) wreaked havoc on a particular romantic relationship because my partner’s family did not approve. I ended the relationship. In another case, the necessary disclosure of it in my workplace, as I had to take time for routine check-ups, was not well received (though to her credit, it was not my boss who was ‘nasty’, but a particular co-worker).
However, I would be lying if I said the reaction that I have received upon disclosure is all bad. There are people out there who have received me just as that – me.  I have friends and family who understand me, are educated about the illness, and know and trust me enough to know who I am as a person, and that I have dedicated myself to remaining the healthy, loving person that they know.
Some people have told me that I am inspiration for going through what I have experienced, and coming out on the other side (though most days I don’t think so; I am simply living life). One of the more common, though mildly irritating responses is, “Really? You don’t look like someone who has a mental illness”. I often wonder what am I supposed to look like, but I usually see that it is coming from a good place of genuine shock.
So from my journey of being totally paranoid about anyone knowing about my illness, I have come to an ambivalent stance, based on the overall, mixed reaction. It won’t be the first thing that I say about myself if I met you, but if over time, I feel that the level of relationship we have is close enough to share that information, and I can mitigate the negative fallout, I do share.
I don’t shout it from the rooftops, but I am not into completely hiding it either. Each time I do it, I recognize that it is a crapshoot, as to how people will react. Sometimes it is negative and sometimes it is positive. I’ve had people come to me with stories of their own illness or a loved one’s, and ask for information about treatment. For me, the final frontier would be to actually do a public interview, and who knows, one day I might even do that. Until then I simply walk the fine line, as a person with mental illness.

Never would I have thought that going to see the movie “X-Men: First Class” would have hit on an issue in my life that I grapple with from time to time. I am not going to be a spoiler (and the movie was boss eh!), but a particular theme of the movie struck me on a very deep level. It was the whole issue that, initially, mutants felt they had to live undercover because humans wouldn’t accept their differences, and would be prejudiced against them. The whole issue of whether to remain concealed or to be ‘out’ and proud ran through the entire movie.

As I went home that night, I began to re-examine this issue in my own life.

I have bipolar disorder, more commonly known as manic depression.

Over the last few years, I would see homosexuals or persons living with HIV/AIDS doing public interviews, and speaking about their own issues with coming out the closet to friends, family, and the general public. I can and do relate because I live it every day – with mental illness. I have bipolar disorder, more commonly known as manic depression.

I accept it for what it is. I stay as healthy as possible, I take my medication, and then I go ahead, living my usual busy lifestyle, which, right now, is dominated by trying to complete my bachelor’s degree. Having this illness comes with its drawbacks, like any other chronic illness, and I just do what is within my control to mitigate it, so that I can continue living as normally as possible. However, there is one factor that I cannot control. The factor that has me walking a fine line ever since my diagnosis nine years ago, which is how will people react to the news that I have a mental illness?

I was deathly afraid of what people would think of me, especially after that dreaded stay in the infamous St. Ann’s Hospital.

Upon diagnosis, I was deathly afraid of what people would think of me, especially after that dreaded stay in the infamous St. Ann’s Hospital. I walked around with a quiet, decent dose of paranoia about being ‘outed’ because I knew of the level of discrimination that people faced after having been there for treatment. A few years later, that level was really confirmed by an acquaintance who also had the illness, but was treated privately. She said: “As long as you doh have your [admittance] papers nobody can say you are mad. They can’t be sure”.

It’s not just John Public I needed to be wary of. I got a shock when the very psychiatrist who treated me at the time (thankfully he isn’t treating me now) said that perhaps I can’t handle all the hard brainwork needed to do a degree. I shot back, “Doc, I just got an ‘A’ in Statistics last semester. It isn’t my higher level thinking that is impaired. I have a mood disorder”. This was the level of prejudice that I faced from people who were intimately acquainted with the workings of mental illness.

…my partner’s family did not approve.

I also faced discrimination in my personal life. In one case, the knowledge of my diagnosis (not me manifesting any symptoms) wreaked havoc on a particular romantic relationship because my partner’s family did not approve. I ended the relationship. In another case, the necessary disclosure of it in my workplace, as I had to take time for routine check-ups, was not well received (though to her credit, it was not my boss who was ‘nasty’, but a particular co-worker).

However, I would be lying if I said the reaction that I have received upon disclosure is all bad. There are people out there who have received me just as that – me.  I have friends and family who understand me, are educated about the illness, and know and trust me enough to know who I am as a person, and that I have dedicated myself to remaining the healthy, loving person that they know.

Some people have told me that I am inspiration for going through what I have experienced, and coming out on the other side (though most days I don’t think so; I am simply living life). One of the more common, though mildly irritating responses is, “Really? You don’t look like someone who has a mental illness”. I often wonder what am I supposed to look like, but I usually see that it is coming from a good place of genuine shock.

So from my journey of being totally paranoid about anyone knowing about my illness, I have come to an ambivalent stance, based on the overall, mixed reaction. It won’t be the first thing that I say about myself if I met you, but if over time, I feel that the level of relationship we have is close enough to share that information, and I can mitigate the negative fallout, I do share.

I don’t shout it from the rooftops, but I am not into completely hiding it either. Each time I do it, I recognize that it is a crapshoot, as to how people will react. Sometimes it is negative and sometimes it is positive. I’ve had people come to me with stories of their own illness or a loved one’s, and ask for information about treatment. For me, the final frontier would be to actually do a public interview, and who knows, one day I might even do that. Until then I simply walk the fine line, as a person with mental illness.

 

4 Comments

  1. Girl thriving with with Bipolar Disorder

    June 20, 2011 at 10:26 am

    @ Kayode: Thank you very much. I’ve had a serious writer’s crush on you since the days of Vox

    @Dee Berkeley : It is easy to say that, not so easy to do, particular if it affects your livelihood as it has in some cases that I know of. We do not have specific disability laws in T&T for that.

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