Stigma? What Stigma?

AlwaysYes, everyone.  It’s me.  Again.  Ruby had to jet off to paradise and I promised her I’d pick up the slack while she was away.  Lucky you.  😉

The title of this post may seem a bit odd, or at least it will after you read on and realize that I am not being facetious or sarcastic with it.

I guess I must have been sprinkled with fairy dust early on in life, because I have never been stigmatized or marginalized or treated unfairly because of my mental health issues – at least not by someone with whom I lacked an intimate connection.  No, you didn’t misread that last part, I essentially said the only people who have ever treated me badly because I carry diagnoses are people who know me very well, people with whom I am – or in some cases was – very close to.

People I disclose to whom I know through work (and if you missed it, I covered what I do in my post To Out Thyself Or Not To Out Thyself – Ruby, go home and fix, dammit!), through casual socializing, even the baristas at my beloved Starbucks – well I have received a variety of reactions, but none have been overtly negative.  People are surprised (usually shocked) to learn that I’m manic-depressive.  People treat me with a newfound sense of interest and respect – and no, not a distant, let’s-not-trigger-the-crazy-lady type of “interest and respect.”  People ask me questions, they often disclose to me that they know someone with the same diagnosis, or carry it themselves, people are immediately ten times more comfortable with me, because I told them something so “intimate” and “personal” like it was no big deal.  For me it doesn’t happen to be, and I think that comes across, I come across as very sincere and inviting.

Don’t mistake me, manic-depression has been a very big deal in my life.  It has stolen huge chunks of it from me.  Which is why I won’t allow for it to anymore.  I won’t give it that power, I won’t give it the ability to rule my choices and my conscious mind the way it used to.

I’m not saying that mental health issues can be “willed away,” or that stigma doesn’t run rampant – in all walks of life.  But I think the reason I elicit the reaction which I do is twofold.

First, I really don’t care what people think when they find out I have struggles with mental health in my repertoire.  If they can’t deal with it, the issue lies within them, not me.  And this is a truth and belief I hold very deeply within myself.  I don’t play like something doesn’t upset me when it does.  I don’t do the super-insecure reaction of boasting and getting in others’ face because I feel like if I can convince enough people around me that I’m “okay,” I’ll feel like I am inside myself.  That isn’t how it works, it works the other way around.

The second reason I believe people react to my disclosure the way they do is precisely because there is so much “stigma,” real and perceived, surrounding mental health, manic-depression being an especially hot topic.  People think they know all sorts of things about it, but do you want to know the two major things they think they know?  That it can’t be hidden and that it must be hidden.  As in, someone cannot be as highly functioning and severely ill as I am, surely something would have given me away!  Or that if that is possible, it’s only possible because I stuff it down inside and never talk about it.  I must go out of my way to hide it, or only tell a few people.  Certainly I would never casually mention it while waiting for my Venti Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte.

Only I would.  And I have.  And I do.  And it completely catches people off of their guard – in a good way.  They put an individual – a familiar, seemingly “normal” (whatever that means to them), intelligent, articulate, well-adjusted individual – with a label, with a term that they have heard about in the news, or which has been whispered amongst their friends, family, and acquaintances in hushed voices.  As though it were something to be ashamed of.

I had one person who had known me in a casual capacity for a long time, and who held a degree in psychology no less tell me, “I never would have suspected it in you.”  And I could have been offended or angry that she thought it was that easy to pick someone with manic-depression out of a crowd, but I wasn’t.  It actually made me happy, in many ways.

This is may be something I wrote about in the post I linked to above, I’m not going to re-read it right now.  But a huge part of breaking down the walls in our lives and overcoming stigma is standing up and giving people an opportunity to connect a person with a life condition.  To give them the opportunity to see the individual instead of the diagnosis.  To realize that we all have challenges in our lives, and being – gulp – “mentally ill” (ugh, blah, I used that term, I now need to go sanitize and reprogram my brain!) is very much like many other struggles that were once shameful but now don’t warrant so much as an eye bat (divorce, having a child out of wedlock, hell, we can even throw Hansen’s disease on the list – more commonly known as leprosy – I know, right?), unless someone is extremely narrow-minded and myopic in their views.  And people like that will exist as long as there are people.  We can’t live our lives bowing to ignorance.

Wow, long post!  But on a final (related) note, please, please don’t take any of what I write to be judgmental of you if you choose to live your life differently.  We all need to find what works for us, this just happens to be it for me, and I want so much to show everyone reading this that it is possible.  I didn’t walk through Hell to get where I am to no point or purpose.  I survived those fires so that I could have the opportunity to be a living example for just one person, that they might see that you can carry diagnoses – very severe, life-altering diagnoses – and not have to try to cover them up, and live your life fully and openly, and be you, no skeletons to hide (at least not as far as your mental health!).

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