Why I Felt Alienated at the Women's March as a Woman With Bipolar
On January 21, 2017, along with millions of people in America and worldwide, I marched in support of women’s rights and against the agenda of the new presidential administration. I saw cute signs and pink knitted hats aplenty. I marched with a group of women my own age. We chanted. We carried signs. We filled the streets of our planned route to overflowing.
I found the experience profoundly alienating. Here is why.
I have a disability known as bipolar type I.
I am one of the lucky ones. I can take a pill every day and keep symptoms at bay. I can “pass” for normal. I can hold down a job. I can date. I can meet new people and form superficial friendships.
When I went to pick up my prescription the other day, the woman told me how impressed she was I knew the name of my medication. What does that tell you about people’s perceptions of people like me?
About two months ago a guy who runs an online journal asked me for an article about stigma and why I don’t like it as a label. I tried to write one, but I actually couldn’t. Partly because I had a lot of other things going on in my life. Mostly because I was just too angry.
Here’s the way I see it.
The root word of stigma is stigmata, a bleeding mark or wound that is impossible to hide.
With prejudice and discrimination, the moral fault lies in the person who is prejudiced.
They are the bigot, the racist, the sexist and the homophobe.
With stigma, something is still wrong with you — the victim. The person who is signing a “Stop Stigma” pledge, or wearing a “Stigma Stops Here” at a National Alliance on Mental Illness fundraiser is showing what a kind and gracious person they are to look past your “flaws.” They are doing something above and beyond what is expected and necessary.
I believe the image of the person with a mental illness this brings to mind is somebody who needs proper care and treatment from family members or the state. Somebody not capable of looking after themselves and who certainly should not reproduce.
These images do not match, in the slightest, the brilliance, heroism and achievements of Kay Redfield Jamison, Sylvia Plath, Patty Duke, Ted Turner, Lord Byron, John Nash or Winston Churchill. It does not match the lives and achievements of the people I know with diagnoses personally. It does not measure their ability to recover and bounce back.
We’re here. We’re crazy brilliant. Crazy in love. Passionate, visionary or you know… just our everyday selves. We are accountants and poets. We are parents. We are black, we are white and we are queer.
Stigma is discrimination. Pure and simple. Why do we need another word?
Or if we’re stuck with this word, stigma, why is “stigmatizer” not in our vocabulary? Why does it seem people consider it one iota less bad to hate a person with mental illness than to hate another marginalized group?
We’re here, but you would never know it. Because we are invisible.
And our invisibility puts us in danger.
We are at risk for loss of health coverage because we live with mental illnesses. We are 16 times more likely to be killed by the police. Yet our problems are seen as primarily medical or personal, not political.
I am not here to compare injustices. I am not here to deny that I have access to certain categories of privilege due to my skin color and education. This isn’t something well-meaning allies can fix for us. You can kindly treat us as human beings and stop to check your privileges and assumptions, yes. But change has to come from somewhere else. Basically enough other people who have been dealt this shitty impossible magical hand-decorated game winning card in life need to decide that they are actually still human too, and worthy of respect and dignity.
Injustice is difficult to impossible to attack without community. And community in our case has major obstacles for building. It is too easy to hide. Too risky if you don’t. I of all people should know. But we’ve got to start somewhere.
The women I marched with didn’t know I was bipolar. Nor was I about to tell them. That label has cost me too many close relationships in my life. Not the illness, the label. Most people don’t get that distinction.
I wonder if anyone from my support group would have been willing to march. Maybe I should have asked them.
Maybe next time, if there is a next time, I will.
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