Several years ago a friend called and asked me if I wanted to go with him to see a film called, simply, “Milk.”
I like movies in general, and this one sounded innocuous enough. So I said, “Sure!”
I left the theater sobbing.
I was furious with my friend – for inviting me, for not warning me, for reminding me of how deadly stigma and fear can be.
I was furious with the whole world – how could such a bright light be permitted to burn out just when we need bright lights the most?
I was furious, period.
I have never forgotten the movie, and I will never forget what Harvey Milk posthumously taught me.
In his San Francisco mayoral election campaign, Milk exhorted voters, saying:
Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And once you do, you will feel so much better. [emphasis added]
In the film, he explains his strategy by saying that when someone close to you knows that you struggle with a particular type of issue, they are more inclined to vote favorably on that issue at the polls.
Their inclination has nothing to do with the issue itself, and everything to do with how much they care about you – one single person who struggles with that issue and will be helped by their vote.
In other words, when given a choice, people don’t vote for issues. People vote for people – people they know, people they care about, people they love, people they don’t want to lose.
As you may know, I suffered with anorexia and bulimia for 15 years before I started my recovery work. I suffered with severe, crippling depression and anxiety for another decade beyond that. So approximately three-quarters of my life to date has been spent battling one type of issue or another – and battling the stigma and fear surrounding it.
This has formed my belief that the specific type of issue I have, versus the specific type of issue you may have, versus the type of issue a loved one of yours may have, doesn’t really much matter.
We basically need the same building blocks to begin healing – love, empathy, an open door to share and be heard, laughter, friendship, a way to serve, a willingness to be served, and the awareness we are not – are NEVER – alone in our struggles (even if the names of those struggles may change from one person to the next).
Harvey Milk taught me this.
On that note, I have a very dear friend who struggles with bipolar illness. She is one of my oldest, closest friends, and I care for her very much.
You see, I work from home, so I don’t go out every day.
But when I do go out, I realize once again how stigmatized bipolar illness still is.
It is so common to hear judgmental jokes – “Oh, s/he must be bipolar” – and also fear – “Better watch out for him/her; sounds like s/he may be bipolar.”
I will confess I’ve even said such things myself – before I knew about my friend’s struggles, and before I understood that bipolar, like eating disorders, is nothing to be afraid of.
People used to be so afraid of ME. I was a mystery – a pariah because of my behaviors and beliefs around food. I was an embarrassment, a source of shame, an object of jokes.
Today the work of courageous celebrities and ordinary folks has turned the tide of eating disorder stigma around and sent it back to where it came from.
WE have done that – us, the ones who have the eating disorders, we who have chosen to speak out, to share our stories, to start (and sign) pledges and petitions, to found nonprofits, to mentor those who still struggle AND to mentor their loved ones as well.
Now it is time to help those with bipolar to make the same long overdue, life-saving strides forward.
Even if you don’t personally struggle with bipolar, and even if you don’t know anyone who struggles with bipolar, someone who has bipolar (and someone who loves someone who has bipolar) will be grateful for your efforts to push back against the fear and stigma that keeps people and the help they need separated.
That stigma simply must go away.
Some people have died so that it might go away.
Some of those people who died had the same issues I have had. Some of the people who died had a different issue than I have had. And some of those people who died were perfectly healthy themselves, but fought tirelessly on behalf of a loved one who struggled with a stigmatized issue.
Now THAT is courage.
Today’s Takeaway: When you look around at the people you love the most, what issues can you identify with that you only learned about because they were courageous enough to share their struggles with you? Do you have something you struggle with that you haven’t opened up about to anyone yet? Is there anyone in your life who seems to be struggling, and you have your questions about whether they need help, but you just aren’t sure? Whether it is Glenn & Jessie Close’s organization or another that moves you, consider sharing information about an issue you care about with your network – together, we can end the stigma – all the stigmas – for us all. Thank you! 🙂