Dump the Stigma and Focus on Recovery
© 2005 Andy Behrman
For years I suffered with a mental disability. I still do - no one has found
a cure for manic depression (bipolar disorder) yet. During those crisis years,
though, nobody knew anything was really wrong with me. I was experiencing a wild
roller coaster ride of frightening highs and lows that put my life in jeopardy,
but my disability was completely invisible.
Granted, I was behaving rather erratically, flying from New York to Tokyo to
Paris on business three or even four times a month, counterfeiting art and smuggling
tens of thousands of dollars back into the United States. At the same time, I
was drinking heavily and indulging in drugs (self-medicating my mental illness),
engaging in sex with complete strangers that I would meet in bars and clubs, staying
up for days on end, and in general living on the edge ... but my disability was
an invisible one.
Friends and family were convinced I was functioning just fine because I was
efficient, productive and successful - who wouldn't be, working twenty-hour days?
I had everybody fooled with my illness. While my manic depression remained undiagnosed,
I secretly wished that my disability was a physical one - one that others would
notice. Maybe people would be supportive and help me if I had diabetes or, God
forbid, cancer. Maybe I needed to show up to the next family function in a wheelchair
to get somebody's attention. I was helpless living with this invisible illness.
Once I was diagnosed, though, and given what I refer to as my "death sentence,"
things changed quickly. And no, my family and friends did not come rushing to
my side to support me in battling against my illness - somehow I fantasized that
this was going to happen.
All of a sudden I realized the stigma of having a mental illness - it hit me
smack between the eyes. And the stigma was almost as bad as having to come to
terms with the fact that I was mentally ill and needed treatment.
The stigma, I realize now, "started" with me. I initiated it. It
was my own fault and a result of my own naiveté at age 28.
When the doctor diagnosed me and used the words "manic depression"
and "bipolar," I had no idea what he was talking about. "Manic"
sounded like "maniac" and "bipolar" sounded like "polar
bear," so I was completely confused (in retrospect I should have aligned
myself with the term "bipolar" then because of the "polar bear"
association, but I didn't).
I was under the impression that the illness was degenerative and that I probably
wouldn't live to see my next birthday. I asked the doctor how many other people
there were like me - 2.5 million people in America alone.
He tried to calm me down and talk me through the diagnosis, but I was self-stigmatized
by my new label. And then, of course, he had to remind me that I was now part
of a category of people called "mentally ill." Oh, God. I was a lunatic,
a freak, a psycho, a crack-up and a mental case.
When I left his office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and walked home
across Central Park that snowy morning, I imagined being forced to have electroshock
therapy like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. I persuaded myself
that I was overreacting, taking this too far. That could never happen to me. But
actually, I wasn't taking it too far. Less than three years later I found myself
in the operating room of a psychiatric hospital in Manhattan, lying on a gurney
with electrodes attached to my head and receiving electroshock treatments - 200
volts of electricity through my brain.
The stigma first hit me from the "outside world" with a little help
from the written prescription my doctor gave me. It was filled out for medications
thought to control my manic depression. The prejudice began then.
On seeing it, my own neighborhood pharmacist remarked, "Your doctor's
putting you on all of this medication? - are you okay?" I didn't respond.
I paid for my four prescription drugs and left the pharmacy wondering exactly
what he meant by "all of this."
Was I some sort of "mental case" because I was now taking four different
medications? Did the pharmacist know something about my condition that I didn't
know? And did he have to say it in such a loud voice, just hours after my diagnosis?
No, he didn't, that was unkind. It seemed that even the pharmacist had an issue
with mentally ill patients, and trust me, mentally ill patients in Manhattan were
the "bread and butter" of his business.
Next I had to tell people about the diagnosis. Scared to death, I waited a
week until I got up the nerve to ask my parents to dinner.
I took them for a meal at one of their favorite restaurants. They seemed suspicious.
Did I have something to tell them? They automatically assumed I was in some sort
of trouble. It was written over both of their faces. Assuring them that I wasn't,
but had some news that might surprise them, I just spilled the beans.
Mom, Dad, I've been diagnosed as a manic depressive by a psychiatrist," I
said. There was a long silence. It's as if I'd told them that I had two months
to live (interestingly, the same reaction that I had when my doctor told me).
They had a million questions. Are you sure? Where did it come from? What's
going to happen to you? Although they didn't come out and say it, they seemed
concerned that I was going to "lose my mind." Oh, God. Their son had
a mental illness. Was I going to end up living with them for the rest of their
lives? And of course, they wanted to know if it was genetic. My telling them that
it was didn't exactly make for a pleasant conclusion to the dinner. Not only were
they now faced with the stigma that their son had a mental illness, but the stigma
that mental illness ran in the family.
With friends, it was easier to break the news of my mental illness. They seemed
to know more about manic depression and were supportive of my getting well and
staying on a medication regime. But all hell broke loose when medication didn't
manage my illness and I opted for the last resort - electroshock therapy.
My friends had had a really mentally ill friend who had to be hospitalized
and "shocked" to maintain an even keel. This was too much for some to
handle and those people simply disappeared. Nobody seemed to want a friend who
was now officially a psychiatric patient and, after electroshock, a certifiable
In fact, everybody seemed frightened of me, including my neighbours, my landlord
and shopkeepers who I had known for years. They all looked at me "funny"
and tried to avoid making eye contact with me. I, however, was extremely up-front
with them. I told them all about my illness and was able to explain my symptoms
to them as well as my treatment. "Have faith - one day I'm going to be just
fine," I seemed to cry out inside. "I'm still the same Andy. I've just
slipped a bit."
As no one knew much about my mental illness, a lot of people had the attitude
that I had the capability to "kick it" and get better instantly. This
was the most frustrating attitude for me. My manic depression was ravaging my
life, but because nobody could see it, many people thought it was a figment of
my imagination. Soon I started thinking this too. But when the symptoms were out
of control - the racing thoughts, the hallucinations and the sleepless nights
- the fact that I really was ill was reassuring.
The guilt I felt for having a mental illness was horrible. I prayed for a broken
bone that would heal in six weeks. But that never happened. I was cursed with
an illness that nobody could see and nobody knew much about. Therefore, the assumption
was that it was "all in my head," rendering me crazy and leaving me
feeling hopeless that I'd never be able to "kick it."
But soon, I decided to cope with my illness like it was a cancer eating away
at me and I fought back. I dealt with it like it was any old physical illness.
I dumped the stigma and focused on recovery. I followed a medication regime, as
well as my doctor's orders, and tried not to pay attention to the ignorant opinions
from others about my illness. I fought it alone, one day at a time, and eventually,
I won the battle.