“Why is it that every organ in your body can get sick and you get sympathy except the brain?” ― Ruby Wax
It would be so much easier to disclose I have a blood disorder.
Which I actually do. But unlike bipolar disorder, it’s not so much of a conversation stopper. Most people have never heard of it, so a lengthy explanation of my blood disorder follows. They then become well-educated on what it is and how it affects me.
Ah. If only explaining bipolar disorder were so simple. Both my blood disorder and bipolar disorder are genetic diseases of vital organs. Neither one is visible if you simply look at me. I wear no identification bracelet. But that’s where the comparison ends because of preconceived information, thoughts or bias. Choose your reason. People believe they know all about mental illness — yet they are able to keep an open mind on learning about a fairly rare blood disorder. Not bipolar. I can tell you the reason why, but first let me tell you how I view these people.
1. The Completely Ignorant.
These people have seen television stories about mass shooters who the (unlicensed as psychologists) media have deemed mentally ill, often bipolar or schizophrenic. They accept everything they see on television as the absolute truth and question nothing. Rarely do they read newspapers, unless you count “The National Enquirer” in grocery checkout lines.
2. The Moderately Informed.
Unlike the Completely Ignorant, these people do read print media and do not depend on television pundits to tell them right from wrong. They have the ability, but not always the desire, to dig deeper if they hear information they do not understand. They are satisfied thinking no one they know could possibly have a mental illness, although one out of six of their friends does.
3. The Sympathetic Friends and Family.
These well-meaning people do know about bipolar disorder. Even if they don’t really understand it, they are sympathetic that you honestly have times where you are too depressed to leave the house. If your name comes up at family gatherings, they will defend your honor and behavior because they love you unconditionally.
4. The Empaths.
My trusted mental health team are empathetic to the fact I have a brain disease — not by choice — and must manage it every day to stay in the zone of stability. My first-line empaths are my fellow bipolars. They will always be my first go-tos because they get it. My other team members are my brothers, my former husband, a childhood best friend, and my psychiatrist and therapist. The criteria is demanding. They have gone out of their way to educate themselves and understand bipolar disorder. They’ve learned my triggers and distress signs, sometimes before I do. I can call them at 3 a.m. and ask for help without fear of judgment. They’ve seen me both at the top of my career and at the lowest. And, oh God, they love me so much that sometimes it hurts because it’s a love so precious to me.
Now, earlier I told you I know the reason why people react the way they do when I tell them I have bipolar disorder, as opposed to when I tell them I have a blood disorder. I can tell you why in one word and it’s the sum total of why I tell my stories. Because someday I want this word to go away. To be in a place where if it’s spoken out loud, no one has any idea what it means. You will no longer be able to find it on Dictionary.com, because it will have ceased to exist and will no longer have meaning. Poof. Gone. Disappeared. Everyone will be in the Age of Enlightenment.
This word is stigma.
Oh, and just so you know. I have the genetic blood disorder hemochromatosis. Google it. I believe you likely will still want to invite me to parties and not be afraid of how I’ll behave.
This piece originally appeared on Feminine Collective.
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Unsplash photo via Roksolana Zasiadko.