The past 10 or so days have proved enormously instructive for me. They’ve provided the kind of instruction I hear tell of from my parents’ days in Catholic school in the 50s and 60s, when one of the nuns would slap a student or turn from a sweet, soft-spoken angel of a teacher into the fires of hell epitomized, without raising anything but her voice. (“YOU ANIMALS!“) I think the latter scared more students at St. Mary of the Mount than every other individual who went the corporal punishment route.
I understand why, too. I’ve taken on the stigma surrounding mental illness for many more years than I care to look back on. When I was blogging regularly, I saw some pretty hateful stuff, but none of it ever penetrated. I shot back, sure, I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t. But the only hurts I have ever actually felt from this dangerous combination of ignorance and fear have been inflicted by friends and loved ones.
By people whom I know “know better”, or certainly ought to, having seen or heard about even a fraction of what I’ve been through.
The first incident that occurred I will not detail, because it involved a thoughtless remark by someone young who has yet to be taught the realities of mental illness, bipolar disorder specifically. I will say that was much like a slap, instruction-wise, because it woke me up to the fact that it’s time for this young one to learn more of the ugly details, the truth of what I and others have been through. The time for shielding has officially passed.
The second incident, a few days later, was a few words between friends. The problem of stigma arose because those words mentioned bipolar explicitly, and were extremely thoughtless. Meant to be a harmless joke, as I’m sure those involved still truly believe them to be. Which is why they fall into the scarier (“YOU ANIMALS!“) category. And why, despite recently removing myself from blogging altogether due to health issues, I am writing this piece after walking around with this indigestible incident making me ill for more than a week.
Because, as Dr. Martin Luther King so insightfully said:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
I’m not writing this piece to call anyone out individually. Personally, I think making private hurts between friends public fodder is about as filthy an idea as anyone can devise, another reason I chewed on this so long. But this is too instructive, too important, and I know no one could ever identify the parties involved.
Because you see, in the moment, I was silent. As vocal as I usually am, I have moments like that one where I am so shocked at what I just heard that my jaw drops metaphorically to the floor, and I can form neither thoughts nor words. Dr. King was so very right, because few though they have been I remember all of these incidents vividly, and I still feel shame and regret and anger and a hurricane of negative emotions associated with the memories and my silence. Let those things stir around inside you too much and they will end you.
Here’s the thing, the thing I should have said, the thing I truly believe. It’s these tiny, insidious, “harmless” comments that lay the groundwork for making the big, ugly, hateful and deliberately hurtful words okay. It’s a normalizing of words like “bipolar” to refer to perceived extremes in people (and normal, even if painful or difficult, reactions to the ups and downs of life) that perpetuates misunderstanding and stereotyping, ultimately trivializing the experiences of those who fight against this demon clinical illness every day of their lives, sometimes simply to stay alive so that they can fight again for one more day.
Because if the “smaller” stuff were not viewed as harmless and laughed off, the bigger stuff wouldn’t even have a foothold to begin with. Stigma needs to be fought from the ground up; we need to tear out the roots to topple the trees.
I still have not said anything to my friends. Honestly, I probably never will, I’ll just choose to categorize my associations with them differently. Unlike the young person I mentioned earlier, they are fully grown adults who should damned well know already that it’s not okay. Not ever. If they haven’t learned that by now, I don’t really see them as belonging in my life. They are still fine people in so many ways — just not one that happens to be crucial to me and my daily existence. (I’m still striving to reconcile this contradiction, probably I never will.) It may seem like a cop-out on my part, and maybe in some ways, it is. But I have fought this battle too often in my history, with people I loved more, with people who had more reason to be sympathetic and try to understand, with people I would give anything to have back in my life as they were.
Which should tell you that when I fought this battle in the past, I lost it.
Every. Single. Time.
♦ ♦ ♦
Note: While I am focusing here on bipolar disorder as a mental illness wrongly normalized and stigmatized, my intent is to apply these thoughts to all illnesses and disorders. Additionally, as someone who loves words more than almost anything in this world, I want to point out that bipolar is a word that can be used legitimately and completely inoffensively to describe inanimate objects or phenomenon. I don’t object to this at all, I believe we should use all of our words, as long as we use them correctly. (Sub-note: The use of the word bipolar predates the attachment of it to an illness or disorder by more than 150 years.)
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