Earlier today I ran across something that struck me as strange: a Facebook page entitled “Either you have it or someone you know does.” Seeing as that could have meant anything from Alzheimer’s to herpes, I clicked on it and found myself staring at a square black icon with bright pink script boldly proclaiming, “Bipolar and Proud!”
And I found myself thinking, Really?
Don’t get me wrong. I have bipolar and I am not ashamed. However, I am not proud either. What exactly is there to be proud of? I didn’t do anything, didn’t accomplish anything to GET bipolar. It’s simply a fact, a genetic accident, like having blue eyes or curly hair. Also, bipolar isn’t really something I AM, it’s something I have. And it’s disturbing to me when I see people taking on a disease like an identity. Because I’ve done that.
There was a time in my life when I “identified” as an Anorexic, a Bulimic, a Cutter, Bipolar, an Incest Survivor; there was a time when I collected diagnoses and disorders the way some people collect bumper stickers, proudly displaying them to show who I was and what I stood for.
The only problem was, it was all bullshit.
I used these patterns of behavior and the labels that came with them to make up for the fact that I didn’t have the first clue who I was; that as a child I had never been given the chance to cultivate an authentic, stable Self that felt worthy of my given name, as opposed to a diagnostic code. I didn’t yet understand that there was more to my story than you could find in my therapy chart; that I had abilities and talents that couldn’t be expressed within the walls of a hospital.
I had one psychiatrist that kept telling me over and over again, “All you know is how to be a patient. I can’t wait until you figure out how to be YOU.”
Eventually, that happened. But not until I had literally been kicked out of treatment (twice), forced to sit through a couple of very uncomfortable years where I eventually figured out that while being sick was easy (in that it was familiar), being recovered is far more interesting.
If you’re dealing with a mental illness, by all means, don’t be ashamed. If you’re figuring out a way to be a person who has a disease instead of being the disease, be proud of that! However, if you find that you’re proud to simply have a disease, you might want to ask yourself why.
My fear is that in some areas we’ve gone overboard to be anti-stigma, to the point where one has to be proud of a mental illness, diametrically opposite to being ashamed of one. Personally, I don’t think either gives you a leg up on beating it. Treating it for what it is- an illness, inherently neither good nor evil- may be the only may be the only way to find a balance.
© Sarah Henderson 2010