Overcoming the Stigma Within

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was in shock. I had no idea about mental illness or mania or psychosis. I had no idea that my brain could be responsible for altering my reality, for making me think certain thoughts, or for making me feel sad when there was no apparent reason. Up until that point, I took reality for granted, as if it were as constant as gravity. But in an instant, sanity became a precious commodity. 

You would think my first reaction would be some variation of concern—maybe devastation or confusion. But my initial feeling upon leaving the hospital was shame. At first, I was ashamed and embarrassed because I acted in a way that I would never normally act. Been there, done that. It’s like when you wake up the next day after doing something stupid while drunk. You’re naturally embarrassed because you acted out of character. Only this time, my mind seemed to lose itself without any help. 

Having bipolar disorder felt like a public relations nightmare. I had a very public acute manic episode, where I claimed to be Jesus in the lobby of my university dormitory, was arrested, and had to take the entire semester off from school. I even made the school paper! I felt like there was no time to actually learn about or treat my condition. I had to let everyone know that I was okay, that I was normal, that I was still me. Maybe I had to prove it to myself. 

When I got back to school, I didn’t even have to explain what happened, because no one cared to talk to me about it. Their silence let me know everything I needed to know about bipolar disorder, and I followed suit, content to leave uncomfortable conversations alone, ignore difficult feelings, and unknowingly, perpetuate ignorance—not only for others, but also for myself. The truth is, I was just as guilty as anyone, since I was my own worst critic, blaming myself for things outside of my control and refusing to educate myself. 

For me, stigma is about education, awareness, and visibility. I would like a world where “bipolar” is not thrown around as a funny or chic adjective (like I noticed this weekend in the new comedy, The Intern), but as a medical condition that deserves every bit as much respect as say, cancer. The thing is though; no one is going to start celebrating our recovery if we are not celebrating ourselves. This is where courage to tell our stories comes in, so we can include others in our fight against stigma.

We need to be able to tell our stories, so people know what bipolar disorder is, and what it isn’t, and that people do live successful lives of recovery. For me, life with bipolar disorder seems like it will always be more challenging than if I didn’t have it. But at the same time, I still enjoy a rich, engaging, and fulfilling life. How many of us, especially when we were struggling to accept our diagnosis or treatment, were hearing stories of hope and inspiration? Not me. 

I can’t stand the stigma around mental illness and recovery. I wish people would stop making assumptions, investigate, and get curious about bipolar disorder. But I have to play a role in this. I have to speak up and tell my story and do my part, however big or small. I have to challenge the stigma within, the one that tells me that it’s not okay, or I’m not worthy, or I don’t deserve to be heard or taken seriously. Our suffering is just as legitimate as any other illness. Our recovery deserves celebration and the resources to make that happen. 

Now, you don’t have to go write a book like I did, or be a blogger, or work in the mental health field. You can do something small that will still have a huge impact on your family and community. You can finally get the courage to tell a friend what it’s like to have bipolar disorder. You can explain to your family member how to best support you. Most importantly, you can tell yourself, in those moments of doubt and insecurity, that you are worthy of the care, support, and love needed to recover with bipolar disorder. If we all do a little bit, we can raise awareness and beat stigma together, but first, we have to overcome the stigma within.

Chris Cole has authored a book recounting his experiences, and he’s now a life coach for folks in recovery. Read the rest of his posts for IBPF here

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