In college, I broke my leg ice skating. A failed attempt at a pirouette landed me in the ER with a not-quite compound fracture. The pain was unbelievable, and I had to undergo emergency surgery which kept me in the hospital for a few days.
When people asked about me, wondering where I was, everyone responded, “Rachel broke her leg and needs surgery. But she’s in good spirits! What an adorable klutz.”
After I was discharged and finally figured out how to use my crutches, I returned to my classes where everyone was overly nice and overly willing to share their lecture notes. Everyone smiled. My broken leg signified that I was pretty clumsy, but that’s normal for a lot of people. Some people are just clumsy — and they probably shouldn’t be taking ice skating lessons.
In college, I was hospitalized twice for psychotic episodes. One suicide attempt and two weeks spent staggering under delusions and paranoia landed me in a psych ward. It was completely terrifying. The intensity of these episodes was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I lost myself to psychosis and even after the hospital brought me back, it took quite awhile before I felt safe again.
When people asked about me, wondering where I was, nobody said anything. Because nobody knew. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had bipolar disorder because by definition that made me abnormal. After I was discharged I struggled to reestablish my routine. My illness and subsequent stays in the hospital haunted me and I was ravaged by feelings of emptiness. When I finally returned to my classes I sat in the back by myself. Everyone smiled, but it didn’t feel like they were smiling at me. Or with me. I felt sick, broken and like I could never tell anyone.
Breaking my leg until the bone practically showed and experiencing psychosis were both incredibly painful experiences. The significant difference was that after one injury, I felt like I could share the experience with others. That we could chuckle about my clumsy antics and that it was OK. I was OK.
After the other injury I felt utterly isolated, struggling to hide a part of myself I vehemently hated. Bipolar disorder was not OK. I was not OK. The underlying problem was that while I had the vocabulary to explain breaking my leg, there was no unprejudiced language I could borrow to share my battle with bipolar. The silence of stigma left me feeling worthless and worthy of quarantine for years.
My fibula healed a lot faster than my heart.
This is why I talk about my mental illness. The quicker we discredit stigma the sooner we can all start to heal. No one should have to do this alone.
Follow this journey on Rachel’s blog.