What It's Like to Be 'Other'
I’ve had to come out three times in my life — first as gay, then as bipolar, and finally as a recovering alcoholic. Although I acknowledge that I have white privilege, I also have triple-threat minority status. To put it succinctly, I am other.
I am not, however, afraid of stigma. While I don’t broadcast it when I meet people, I am perfectly comfortable talking about my recovery, my illness, or my sexual orientation. I’ve written a memoir about these three issues together — “The Bipolar Addict” — and I didn’t use a pseudonym, so all my secrets are out there for Google to find.
Having depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, or any of a wide range of mental conditions is still considered unmentionable. I would argue that those who struggle with mental illness are the largest “fringe” group not yet accepted by the mainstream.
What is it like to be other? The answer highlights how far we’ve come as a society. On this 53rd Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, this is a good time to reflect on where we were and highlight how rapidly gay acceptance has come in just a few years. Much of our national collective psyche has changed its mind about queerness.
Not so long ago, LGBTQIA+ was not even a recognized acronym. Now we are increasingly celebrating trans lives, a segment of the LGBTQIA+ population that has been scorned the most out of that spectrum and has been considered pernicious. “Trans Lives Matter” has become a mantra of our times. “Bipolar Strong” is a popular hashtag.
We in the village of gay have entered a new era. Now we have nationwide marriage equality, though it may be at risk due to the conservative shift on the Supreme Court. Straight people enjoy attending Pride parades in support of gay rights. Seeing a gay character on television or film is no longer groundbreaking or cause for product boycotts. The phrases “his husband” and “her wife” no longer sound like pronoun confusion.
And looking back at the Clintonian ‘90s, as a gay teen, I felt like an extricated alien. A creature to be feared, diminished, and ostracized. I was frail. Gossamer thin. Rotten to the core. I was absolutely ashamed. Harassed in high school because I was “different,” I was afraid to come out.
Even in college in Iowa in the late 1990s, I felt like being gay was not only unspeakable, it was nearly unacceptable. Matthew Shepard died while I was in college, murdered for being gay.
Back then, gay men in particular were singularly associated with AIDS. And up until 2015, gay men were not permitted to donate blood, prohibited by the FDA because of that sentiment.
During the 1990s, more LGBTQIA+ people began revealing their sexuality slowly but surely, led by milestones such as MTV’s “The Real World” (1992) featuring gay main characters, the coming-out of Ellen DeGeneres on the cover of “Time” (1997), with the headline, “Yep, I’m Gay,” and shows such as “Will & Grace” (1998).
Despite increasing acceptability in pop culture, there was still an element of shame in being gay even in the early 2000s.Indeed, I felt shame. The word “fag” was vernacular back then. “God Hates Fags” was a mantra among some born-again Christian zealots.
And although the president says “Transgender rights are human rights,” the trans community continues to struggle. Trans kids are bullied at school and made to feel like they are abominations. Trans women are murdered at alarming rates. And in some countries it is illegal to be gay, punishable by execution.
It was one heck of a journey and still is for so many.
Other is different than “different.” Other implies ostracism. I don’t want to be ostracized anymore for my mental illness, like some curiosity in a circus sideshow.
Even going to therapy is still considered a weakness. But with teletherapy becoming all the rage during COVID, it’s becoming less stigmatized because we can all see a doctor or psychologist from the comfort of home, without fear of others judging us.
Just as being gay is becoming more accepted today, this same respect needs to be built around mental illness. In 2022, mental illness is quite “normal.” Approximately one in five adults experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Despite this high rate, many consider talking about it as verboten. But mental illness should be embraced with equal respect to any group aligned with sexual orientation/identification, religion, or ethnicity.
I was diagnosed bipolar in 2008, after a major manic episode in New York City, when I experienced extreme psychosis, delusions of grandeur, and panic attacks. I was working as a producer at MTV News in Times Square, and everyone at work knew I was mentally ill because of my very public breakdown at the office.
I personally felt stigmatized. I just wanted to hide away.
Mental illness is still — even in the 21st century — hugely stigmatized. When someone needs to take a medical leave from work to treat and address mental health conditions like clinical depression, they are often seen as wimpy, not ill. But if someone needs six or eight weeks to recover from a physical ailment, such as hip-replacement surgery, it is much more widely accepted.
Addiction is also stigmatized, even though the following numbers are extraordinary.There are 15.1 million adults, or 6.2 percent of Americans, with alcohol-use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The opioid crisis is alarming. Every day more than 130 people overdose and die on opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Although it is extremely increasingly acceptable, one in seven Americans use marijuana, just as many who smoke cigarettes.
Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous etc. remain go-to sources of help, and many people benefit from them. Like what happened with gay acceptance, there is some movement here, but it’s really just beginning.
Celebrities such as Mariah Carey, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Kanye West are seen as heroes for speaking out about their bipolar disorder. Prince Harry has spoken about his depression and anxiety, even featuring himself inside a therapy session in the docuseries “The Me You Can’t See.” His wife Meghan Markle has divulged she has been suicidal.
There was virtually no stigma when these celebrities “came out” as mentally ill. But that’s Hollywood. We idolize our celebrities and believe they can do no wrong.
Many people with mental illness still struggle for acceptance. But we as a nation are talking about it more and more, and that’s progress. I look forward to the day when we can talk about having depression or bipolar disorder as openly as someone who talks about their other health conditions.
After coming out three times in my lifetime, I’m tired of feeling like I’m other — which is a far cry from being viewed as unique, a word loaded with positivity. But when the other label is applied, the negative connotations make me feel subhuman.
I am not a kook. I am not flawed. I’m not a drunk. Like my gay pride, I refuse to be relegated into second-class citizenship, a mutant humanoid who can flip out at any moment.
This decade, we are all sewing a patchwork quilt of diversity. Every day, we create the constantly changing constellation that is America, and it includes LGBTQIA+ people, ethnic and religious minorities, those who struggle with mental illness, immigrants, and more that call the United States of America home.
I believe we are all individually special in one way or another. Our personalities, our eccentricities, our characteristics are all distinctive. And that’s something to be proud about. To all those who feel other, Happy Pride.
Getty image by The Good Brigade