We talk a lot about stigma in society against mental illness. We are afraid to come out of the closet with our illness, because we will be judged and misunderstood. We will be labeled, and people will not see the person beyond the label.
But it is my belief, that perhaps the most stigmatizing people in our lives can be found right at home. The people who are at home when we are at our worst. The people who have spent countless hours driving us to appointments, waiting in emergency rooms, and most of all, picking up the pieces of the mess we left when crisis hit us.
Maybe it’s offensive for me to use the word “us,” instead of “I.” Maybe. But I think many people can relate.
In my life now, I am on excellent medications and I have a stellar system of support in place, from the friends in my life, to my job where I work as a peer. I freely disclose my illness, and it is the best feeling in the world. As dreadful as it is for a gay man to never acknowledge his sexuality, so it is for me with my mental illness.
For me, my illness is a part of me. Not to be defeatist. But… I have dealt with my illness for as long as I can remember, even in early childhood. For me not disclose it, means that I invalidate the lessons and wisdom I have learned from life, in spite of my illness. Hiding my illness means that I submit to shame.
These days, I am doing well. I’ve lost about 65 pounds of the weight I gained from psych meds, and am now athletic. I have a full time job that I have kept for almost a year, for the first time in my life. Next month, I am turning 30. There is much for me to be happy about.
And yet, remnants of the past still remain. Especially in my family, they have not accustomed to my change in recovery. They still see me as the ill person with the irrational behavior and incapacity for responsibility. When I express my strident political opinions, I am accused of being moody. When I sigh after working hard all day, I’m accused of being impatient.
This is stigma at its worst.
For me, I strive for wellness not only for myself, but also to show the world that recovery from mental illness is possible. I mean, look here. I exercise. I lost 65 pounds. I can run 5 miles without getting out of breath. There are people out there, “mentally well,” that are morbidly obese. And yet they are more mentally well than I? Not to diminish the mentality of the obese, but… weight loss and healthy nutrition takes discipline. Doesn’t it require mental wellness to exercise discipline?
What about my ability to make friends wherever I go? As a child, I had but two best friends, both whom I lost to circumstance. Now, I have dozens of friends. I’m throwing myself a party next month for the big 30, and I expect maybe 15 people will come. My sociability was something that I developed. It didn’t come natural to me. And yet, I’m criticized to be ill by family members who never trust anyone beyond the home.
What about my ability to perform music in front of large audiences without feeling stage fright? What about my talent for giving speeches and engaging audiences, again without anxiety? Am I more ill than a person who never takes a chance to stand up for himself, so he can fit in?
I’ve worked damn hard for my wellness. And I have realized that, when we become well, we still are victims of stigma, simply because people are unable to forget the past. People equate our illness with who we are. I “am” a pain in the ass, because I was a pain in the ass to care for.
That is why I embrace my illness, and say “I AM schizoaffective disorder.” Because if schizoaffective disorder can put on makeup every day, and dress fashionably and have a rockin’ bod… then you can’t discriminate me for it.
Sometimes, I wish those who stigmatize us would look in the mirror, and stigmatize themselves. Perhaps a sadistic wish, but I’ve not come up with anything better at the moment.