Last month, we had Mental Health Awareness Week in Canada, and the month of May was Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S. Hopefully awareness was raised and the efforts made to reduce stigma were well received. I’ve said it before in other blog posts; stigma is dangerous. Stigma prevents people from getting help and from being themselves.
I found an interesting article, “Forget Mental Health, We Need to Talk About Mental Illness“, which talks about stigma, awareness months/weeks, and the difference between mental health and mental illness. The term mental health seems to be more palatable for people compared to the term mental illness. It seems that when you put the word “mental” in front of the word “illness”, people become uncomfortable. The author talks about how mental illnesses are treated differently from physical illnesses:
Obviously the mention of any illness, mental or physical, will induce various reactions from different people. It’s not fair to say that mental illness holds the monopoly on shock and awe, as well as denial. But from first-hand experience, sharing that I’ve had to take sick days due to increased anxiety resulting from my bipolar disorder — this is received far differently than when I’ve mentioned I had the stomach flu. Taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications has my listener looking for the closest neon red exit sign, whereas the mention of blood pressure medication is the opener for a discussion on the topic.
This is all too true. I have had to take sick days because of increased anxiety, especially at past jobs. I am happy at my current job, and it is a positive environment where I am comfortable. Not to the point where I would advertise my diagnosis though. I am sure certain people there would be unsure what to do with that information, others might be accepting, and others might have the reaction of “oh, but you seem so normal and functional!” It is much easier to talk about a physical illness or physical injury. Nevertheless, I am good at my job, I am generally productive and get my work done so no one suspects anything. It’s not always easy to go to work, stay calm, and concentrate on the task at hand. It’s hurtful to hear people at work refer to their clients as “crazy” or “psycho” or use mental illnesses as adjectives. The only person at work who knows about my diagnosis is my boss. I had planned a few days off before the wedding, and the day before what was supposed to be my last day prior to the wedding, I woke up, in a panic, nauseous, fast heartbeat and knew I was unable to go to work. I called my boss and explained to him the situation and his response was “Don’t worry about it. I understand. If you weren’t feeling well because of something physical it would be the same thing. If I had a bad back and it was acting up, I wouldn’t go to work that day.” How often can you say that your boss actually knows that a mental illness should be treated like a physical illness? If only more people were like him.
Getting back to why I hate stigma, for me, not being able to be my real self is not a good feeling. I am sure many of you can agree with that. I don’t like having to hide a part of me. I was talking to my friend the other day, who had concerns about a family member. The family member’s behaviour reminded me of some of my behaviours I would like to forget, and parts of my hypomanic episodes I would like to forget. I was explaining to her that I understood his behaviour, and his attitude all too well. I said that for him, acknowledging there is a problem and that he needs help makes what is happening to him more real. If he seeks help and receives a diagnosis of whatever the condition may be, there is no going back. Once you get that diagnosis, as much as you don’t want to think that way, your life changes. You fear people will “find out about you”, and look at you differently. You wonder, “Who do I tell? Who can I trust?”
That conversation brought back memories of the events leading up to my own diagnosis. I knew something wasn’t right when I had periods of highs and my spending was out of control, when I couldn’t sleep, when my eating was off, etc. Or when I couldn’t stop eating or talking or would start having an existential crisis in the middle of the night and make no sense. I didn’t want to acknowledge what was happening to me. I must have been really good at hiding the evidence of the shopping sprees and good at masking how I was feeling because it was a long time before it became clear to me that I was “high” and in a hypomanic state and before my family, friends and (now) husband realized the same thing.
What I also started to remember about my hypomanic self was my aggression, irritability and stubbornness. If you didn’t agree with me, I would berate you and not stop talking until I was convinced that I had proven my point. I was very easily irritated and agitated. If you weren’t on my side, you were my enemy and I couldn’t trust you. You didn’t care about me if you weren’t on my side. And my ideas were always great and fantastic and you couldn’t tell me otherwise. I didn’t need to sleep – what for? Yes, I did need that purse, those shoes, that makeup, don’t tell me I have enough- I like variety!! You get the point. When I think about how rude I was to my parents, my husband, probably my best friends, I feel terrible. I have learned a lot about myself since being diagnosed with Bipolar II almost 5 years ago. I am stronger, more insightful, calmer, thoughtful, empathetic because of it. Not that I wasn’t/didn’t have these qualities before, but having/living with this mental illness brought out the best in me. I also found comfort in learning about all the celebrities, artists and writers who have been successful living with Bipolar II and learning about the connection between creativity and bipolar disorder. I appreciate my creativity more. I appreciate everyone in my life so much more because of all I have been through. I have eliminated a few people in my life who are toxic. I have learned who will never understand me. I know who I can be my real self around, and not be ashamed when I have to take my pill box out at dinner to take my first round of pills, or when I have to take it out to take my second round of pills later on. I know who my real friends are now. More importantly, I know who I am.
About Melanie Luxenberg
My name is Melanie Luxenberg and I am finally ready to live openly with mental illness. I was first diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in 2003, which I still experience. At the same time, I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety (which I also still experience), and then briefly experienced Agoraphobia. I have had depression on and off since I was 13 years old. In July 2010 I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II. Shortly after it was realized that I experienced rapid cycling. I can experience multiple cycles in a week. Despite my diagnosis, I completed a university degree and then a college program. I have always held stable employment, regularly taken my medication and regularly attended my doctor’s appointments. There have been times of hopelessness, but I have always found support from my family, husband and 3 dogs. I am a law clerk, social media/content writer and of course, mental health advocate. My Twitter feed is full of mental health advocacy messages. I hope one day to see the end of stigma towards mental illness, because stigma has to stop!