I don’t know why it took my therapist to suggest a post on this topic. Probably since it’s the singular most horrific part of struggling with my BP II diagnosis.
Stigma as defined in Merriam-Webster:
a archaic : a scar left by a hot iron : brand
b : a mark of shame or discredit : stain
c : an identifying mark or characteristic; specifically : a specific diagnostic sign of a disease
a stigmata plural : bodily marks or pains resembling the wounds of the crucified Jesus and sometimes accompanying religious ecstasy
b : petechia
a : a small spot, scar, or opening on a plant or animal
b : the usually apical part of the pistil of a flower which receives the pollen grains and on which they germinate
After the blow from identifying with all parts of definitions 1 and 2, I took a crane and hoisted my brand new Roget’s International Thesaurus 7th Edition up on my desk. The news wasn’t much better:
1. A mark of discredit or disgrace: black eye, blemish, blot, onus, spot, stain, taint, tarnish. Archaic: attaint. Idiom: a blot on one’s escutcheon. See marks, respect
2. A mark on the skin indicative of a disease, as typhus: petechia. See marks
So, since all disorders of the mind carry stigma, basically any one of us who has a mental illness is, by definition, blemished, disgraced, scarred and shamed.
No wonder my therapist keeps asking how I am doing with, ‘The Stigma Issue.”
Not so very well, I can tell you.
Back when I was struggling with actually taking LOA, before the doctor even signed the paperwork, I had already decided I would not tell anyone at work the reason for my absence. I am quite frankly terrified of what the stigma of having a mental illness will do to the career I have forged in a good-ol’-boy’s world. Let them think it’s a death in the family. Let them think it’s cramps. Let them think it’s absolutely anything but a mental illness.
Another favorite shame of mine is going to the pharmacy. Yes, yes, I know. The pharmacist attends to people picking up meds for all manner of illnesses. But this isn’t just anyone’s med, it’s my med. I have to face this kind, reserved man and ask him for my anti-psychotic medication regularly (since we’re still playing with my dosage). I’m sure he probably isn’t doing this, but my inner devil keeps telling me that when he sees me coming down the aisle, his inner dialogue says something like, “Here comes that Bipolar chick again.” Or, “Christ, how much Clonazepam can she take and still walk down the aisle?”
Pharmacist aside, there’s also the shame when someone you’ve trusted not to tell your dirty little secret actually spills it. Christ. I feel as if I can never face the newly anointed, unintentional accomplice ever again.
And then there’s the random crowd one finds themself in during peak times of hypomania. Everyone knows, you know. Everyone, and I mean man, woman, child, dog and stuffed bunny rabbit being carried by a two-year old are all staring and pointing at me because I have a mental illness. Because I am bipolar. And they are all laughing their asses off – on the inside.
No, I’m not going into extreme paranoia. Of course this isn’t really happening. But it feels like it is. The shame and degradation I feel at times is just as paralyzing as cycling into a clinical/bipolar depression. And this is what friends and loved ones of bipolar people need to get. If we aren’t ready to shout it from the rooftops, then you shouldn’t breathe our private business to another living soul either. Because you know what? The 70’s shampoo commercial is alive and well – they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on… Some of us may never be ready or willing to slip their mental illness casually into a conversation. Tea with the Queen will not include any discussion of my mood log, I can tell you.
So, my bottom line is I honestly believe that to begin combating stigma, something very important is needed at the base of the old attack plan pyramid. Respect. Sing it with me now! Without respect for the person with the affliction, without honoring their feelings on whether or not to go public or how public about their illness they would like to be, the person with the illness will never have a chance to accept and process. And without acceptance, sans processing, without reserves built up, there can be no resources left to fight stigma.
And yes, people. It is a fight.
More on actually fighting stigma in a later post.