The title says it all. Despite advances in healthcare and psychiatry, people still stigmatize mental illness. Many look at the mentally ill as time bombs just waiting to go off. No matter how many times we repeat “It’s an illness, not a personal failing,” there are still people who will look at you differently the second you tell them you’re mentally ill.
I’ve been turned away from jobs for admitting it. I’ve lost friends. One of my clients, when I told him I was bipolar, stared at me strangely. “Isn’t that just on this side of crazy? You don’t seem crazy to me.”
I encounter that reaction a lot, especially when I throw in the revelation that I have Asperger’s, too. People study me, looking for something they’re sure they missed, some secret sign or mark. “You don’t seem it,” they say. “I never would have guessed. You’re doing a good job.”
By “good job,” I can only assume they mean “acting normal.” I’m a master by now, I guess.
It’s been a rough week for me, guys. My family’s been through hell in the mental health department. I guess I’ll just leave it at that and let one of my characters speak. She’s a little bitter, but she sums up how I feel at my most frustrated.
(Just a note: My character’s shrink, Oliver, is actually quite insightful. I promise, I did not write a terrible shrink-character who doesn’t get it. She’s just venting at him.)
Swiveling in his chair, Oliver looks up at The Starry Night again. “I think this one’s my favorite. A bipolar artist creating something so . . .” He trails off, glancing at me. “Is this how you see the world? Is it this intense for you?”
I frown. “What do you mean?”
He traces the brushstrokes, his eyes going far away. “Are these the colors you all see at night? Is this what your world looks like?”
I stare at him, raising an eyebrow. “Well, my world isn’t quite so blurry.”
Shrugging, Oliver turns back to me, shifting a few things on his desk. “I’m sorry. I just figured . . .”
“That all bipolar people see the world the same way? Wow.”
His cheeks flush, and the shielded look takes over his face. “No . . . I didn’t mean . . . you know, just forget it. We should get back to whatever you need to talk about.”
“Oh?” I fold my arms and lean back against the cushions. “You don’t want to study me some more? You think you’ve figured me out after spending three or four hours with me? Case closed, just another crazy girl?”
Sighing, he leans back too, as if mirroring my posture is going to save this conversation. “Mari, I thought we were past this. I’m not attacking you every time I open my mouth. I’ve wanted to understand how people with mental illnesses perceive the world my entire life. I think we can help each other here.”
I definitely hate it when he’s right, but I can’t just let it go. “Look, I’m sure you don’t mean anything by it, but I’ve had enough of being studied by shrinks. And people in general. Seriously, people think mentally ill people are so interesting until they get hurt by one.”
His shrink voice returns as he picks up a notebook. “Would you care to elaborate on that, Mari?”
Heat rises in my face, and I narrow my eyes at him. “Yeah, I would. And I’ll make it simple for you. You have no idea what it’s like to be me.” I gesture vehemently down to the useless wreck of illness-ridden body I’m stuck with. “How do you think I feel being trapped like this, unable to trust my body or my brain? I used to actually do things. I used to be a star employee, a student athlete, a freaking valedictorian!”
I shouldn’t care this much. Those things weren’t really me. They were never me. But I don’t know what’s me or not anymore.
Tears well up in the corners of my eyes, but I stubbornly squash them. I shouldn’t cry over this. I’ll never let Oliver see me cry.
I take a deep, shuddering breath and go on the attack again. “So now I hide in bed all day because half the damn world gives me a panic attack, and the other half thinks I’m repulsive. People hear ‘bipolar’, and suddenly, I’m a stranger. I’m no different than a homeless guy living in the subway. I’m just as scary.” My voice comes out choked, but hard. “And you know what? They’re probably right. I’m a walking freak show. How could you know anything about that?”
“Mari, I understand you’re frustrated, but—”
I don’t want his pity any more than I wanted Jason’s. I’m not that pathetic. I’m not my mom. “And you know what’s even worse than being someone like me?” I cut him off as my voice rises. “Living with someone who’s worse than me. You have no idea how it breaks you a little at time when someone who you care about rips you to shreds every time they lose it.”