Proud! Not Prejudiced: Has Anti-Stigma Gone Overboard?

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

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About writingforrecovery

Sarah is a writer and poet who speaks out about issues that make people uncomfortable. Sarah advocates for causes such a sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, and mental illness, and often speaks openly about her own experiences. She is determined to abolish the stigma associated with these issues and believes that it starts with people telling their stories, so she started a blog called Writing for Recovery where people can do just that. She is the author of three volumes of poetry and is currently at work on her fourth. She is convinced that there's a novel somewhere in her, and occasionally picks at the chapters so far. View all posts by writingforrecovery

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