Sunday, November 21, 2010
It’s the stigma, stupid. Sunday, November 21, 2010.
“Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m schizophrenic and so am I.” – Oscar Levant
The problem with Levant’s famous little poem is that schizophrenia and Dissociative Personality Disorder are not the same thing. But most people still believe that people with schizophrenia have “multiple personalities.” We’ve come a long way, but apparently, not far enough.
The first time I was hospitalized for my bipolar was in the early 90s. For a week I’d been suffering from a panic attack that would not go away. My “manias” are atypical – anything but euphoric. I had a feeling of terror, a pounding heart, an inability to eat or sleep, and I knew from experience that this state could last weeks or months. So I admitted myself to the hospital.
The good news is that I had health insurance that covered a two-week stay – enough to be stabilized on meds. I was in a wonderful facility and received excellent care. The bad news was that I had to explain my absence to my boss. I decided to call in and say that my appendix had ruptured.
One of the psych nurses overheard my call. That evening she came into my room with a pile of medical books. “What are those for?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “if you’re going to lie about your reason for being gone, you’d better study up on appendicitis so you can answer any questions.”
In two weeks I returned to work, feeling much better, but still clinging to my appendicitis story. However, I noticed that people were avoiding me, and a few times people would quit talking when I came into the room. After a few days my boss called me into his office. “You should know there’s a rumor going around,” he said. “People are saying that you had a nervous breakdown.”
I finally realized what the nurse had been trying to help me understand. I went back to my desk and typed up a real explanation. I did, in fact, have “a nervous breakdown” (as we called it then). I had an illness called manic-depression (as we called it then). I had been in the hospital to stabilize my medication. I was feeling much better. And if anyone had any questions, they could just ask me. I sent it to everyone in the building.
From that time on, things changed. People came to me, praising my courage and, in a couple of cases, apologizing for having laughed behind my back. They told me about relatives and friends that were suffering from a mental illness. And a few of them shared that they, too, suffered from depression. I went from being a laughingstock to a bit of a hero.
That was my former life. I had no husband, no child. I had an apartment, no mortgage. And my job was secure.
All of those things were different this time around. When I “came out” the first time, I really had nothing to lose. I could bear the threat of the stigma. This time I don’t feel like I can. I have my husband, our church, my son to think about. My current boss and co-workers don’t know my like they did at the place I worked before, and my entire field is in upheaval, with people clinging to their jobs like lifesavers. It’s not about shame; it’s about the mortgage.
I’ve been debating on a Facebook page about whether or not mental “illness” exists. Some people believe that there really is no such thing, and that people who behave dysfunctionally are simply reacting to early childhood abuse. “I find it utterly dehumanizing and actually re-traumatizing to be called biologically, genetically defective,” one woman told me.
For me, it’s just the opposite. Understanding that I have an illness is comforting, freeing. I don’t feel like less of a person for having bipolar any more than I’d feel like less of a person for having diabetes. I’m not apologetic about taking meds either. They work for me, and as long as I’m functional, that’s all I care about.
But, you see, I’m not the one with the problem. Other people are. I have no idea how my current boss would react. I suspect my treatment costs the company money, and wonder if they’d prefer to replace me with someone cheaper. The people in our church are mostly immigrants and are very conservative. Many of them would see my situation not as an illness, but rather as a spiritual failing. My son’s friends might be uncomfortable around his “crazy” mom. And so it goes.
Maybe someday I’ll be ready to send out another message to everyone I know, telling them that I have an illness, that I take meds, that I feel OK, and that they can come to me with any questions. But not today.