I am really just beginning to be a mental health advocate. There was a time when I wasn’t so beautifully bipolar, but instead hid in the closet. I was afraid to tell people I had bipolar disorder. It has always mattered to me what other people thought of me – it shouldn’t, but it does. So what would they think when they knew I had a mental illness? In the past year I have made huge strides in accepting my diagnosis and have become much more open and honest about my life lived with mental illness.
I was at a festival last weekend with a friend and her family. We had just eaten festival food, you know, the foot-long corn dogs, cheese fries, gyros. The good stuff. We were sitting in a private tent my friend’s friend had invited us into. Apart from us was a group of six strangers, all talking and drinking wine. My friend went outside the tent to chase after her toddler and her husband and I sat quietly digesting our delicious meal.
That’s when it happened.
There was a man pouring ice into a blue cooler to keep the group’s white wine cold. He said something about someone who was missing from the festival.
The guy: “She’s bipolar, but aren’t we all? Hahaha.”
“Stranger #1: “NO! I am NOT bipolar!”
Stranger #2: “Yeah, we aren’t all crazy.”
The guy: “Come on, you know what I mean. We are all a little moody sometimes.”
Stranger #1: “Moody is one thing, crazy is another.”
So what did I do? Did I stand up and say something? After all, I am an advocate for mental health. I write this blog and another. I am a member at large for the consumer advisory council to the International Bipolar Foundation. I’ve written a memoir about my life with mental illness and here was the perfect opportunity to educate these people, a chance to stomp out stigma!
They were wrong, all of them. Not everyone is bipolar. Just because a person might be temperamental and moody doesn’t make them bipolar. As for crazy, when used in this context it is an insult.
So what did I do? I sat quietly in that tent and let them go on about “crazy” people and bipolar people. I sat there ashamed because they were talking about me, though they didn’t know it. I was ashamed because I couldn’t work up the guts to say, “Stop. You’ve got it all wrong.” I thought I was over being ashamed of my mental illness, but in this situation all those feelings came flooding back to me.
It’s easy to sit here at my computer and talk about mental health. Hell, it’s easy for me to talk openly to my friends and family about mental health and my bipolar disorder. But when it came to confronting stigma head on, face to face, I buckled.
I’m not proud of myself, but I forgive myself. Standing up to a group of strangers is a tough thing and maybe I’m not quite that strong yet. It doesn’t mean I am not an advocate or that all that I do is meaningless. But it proves I have more growing to do, more strengthening. Because it isn’t okay to talk about the mentally ill as though they are outcasts. The facts are that 1 in 4 people has a mental illness so the odds are that someone in that group has depression or anxiety disorder or some other illness of the mind.
I’ll be ready next time. I am already thinking of things I can say the next time I am in that situation, because there will be a next time and a time after that because stigma exists. Ignorance exists. I am one person but I can make a difference and so can you.