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To My High School Clarinet Teacher, Whom I Stigmatized for Mental Illness

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To my high school clarinet teacher,

We haven’t spoken in four years, and I doubt you’ll ever see this, but I wanted to write to you to say I’m sorry for what I did when you told me why you were hospitalized.

In 9th Grade, I got a phone call saying I would miss a class due to your absence; the following week you told me it was due to an accidental medication overdose which ended with you being hospitalized. When I asked why, you said it was because you were bipolar.

The only experience I had with bipolar at that point was my friend, who was undiagnosed so we didn’t know, and the media, which portrays bipolar people as unstable, violent, unpredictable, aggressive and dangerous. Even though we were friends for the better part of two years of this point, I was scared and took a step back in preparation for a lash out. You reassured me you weren’t a threat and that you were fine and safe to be around, and after our lesson I was fine and embarrassed with my knee-jerk reaction.

Now, I am approaching 21 and have had more experience with mental health. I now understand bipolar better and know what the media portrays is a pile of rubbish — that you are not aggressive, unpredictable, dangerous. I remember you as funny, talented, caring and an amazing person.

I need to bring this up now in light of my own diagnosis because although I have only had an official diagnosis for a few months, I have faced stigma for my mental illness for most of my adult life.

In November of 2016, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) with depression and anxiety. Out of all the friends I had, the majority left me because people with BPD are seen as aggressive, unreliable, manipulative, toxic and dangerous. People with depression are seen as liars or lazy, trying to fit into the “cool” group of people with mental illness. Anxiety is seen as just an excuse to get out of things I don’t want to do. My family viewed and still view my depression as laziness — that there is no excuse for not having a clean room and not feeding myself, or for my piles of dirty clothes and dishes. They view my anxiety as just something I shouldn’t let “control my life,” or something to roll their eyes at. They think that when my mind is filled with fog and I struggle to even get a sentence out, I am just tired or have nothing to say. They think my binging is just me being greedy and the “fat” person I am, not me struggling to deal with an itch, an urge that is eating away at my very being.

I have been fighting stigma my entire life without knowing it, and what I am now experiencing is something I did to you. Now, with this extra knowledge I have, and now I have entered my second year of nursing at university — intending to become a psychiatric pediatric nurse — I feel horrid for the way I reacted to you revealing something so personal. I now struggle to be open because of fear of people leaving me, or thinking I am dangerous to be around. I can’t imagine how you felt when I reacted as if I had just woken up in the middle of a hungry lion’s den, ready to run at the first sight of danger.

I am sorry for my naivety, and I wish to thank you for triggering the beginning of my education with mental health. Thank you for making me realize we need a better education covering all types of mental health, and thank you for helping me accept my new diagnosis. Sure, there will be days I will feel toxic, manipulative, dangerous, broken and unable to be cured, but you helped me realize people with mental illnesses don’t fit into the box that the media and society stuffs them into.

Thank you for everything you did for me without ever knowing.


Your very grateful ex-student.

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Thinkstock photo via Furtseff

Originally published: May 8, 2017
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