Author: Christina Chambers
First of all, Happy World Bipolar Day! In light of this year’s theme “Bipolar Together”, I would like to talk about moving beyond self-stigma to find connection and support. For me, the biggest barrier to connection with others became self-stigma. Stigma is negative attitudes or discrimination based on a characteristic like Bipolar Disorder. This shows up in media, job discrimination, language use and more. What can happen over time, is the stigma can become internalized – this is self-stigma. It is feelings of shame, that you do not belong, that there is something wrong with you, or that you are separate in a negative way because of having Bipolar Disorder. Personally, I internalized stigma very deeply and carried a powerful sense of shame for having mental illness. Deep down, part of me believed that I was not worthy of the connections I had, and that I did not belong. This generated constant underlying feelings of isolation. When I learned about self-stigma, the awareness prompted a change in my attitudes towards myself. I progressively worked on changing the language I used in my head about my disorder. Bit by bit, when I felt safe to do so, I opened up to people about my Bipolar Disorder. Talking about Bipolar Disorder, and the resulting connection, became the antidote to self-stigma shame.
In 2018, I began working as a Peer Support Worker. I work in community addiction and mental health, and my role is to utilize my lived experience to support others as they traverse their recovery journeys. My work involves sharing bits of my personal story with mental illness with peers and clinicians on a daily basis. When I first started, the vulnerability hangover was real! That gnawing sense of ‘have I said too much?’ and lingering fear of rejection was palpable. This was particularly true when sharing with clinicians. I tapped into opposite action and acted like I was confident. What I found was, the vast majority of the time, I felt respected and accepted. The more I spoke up about my experiences, the less power the shame had over me. This led to speaking up more, like applying to blog for International Bipolar Foundation under my given name. It also led to developing many close connections with others based on my whole authentic self.
I noticed a pattern in working with others who also have mental illness: self-stigma, self-doubt and shame are huge barriers to connection. I found this was often unbeknownst to the people living with mental illness, just like it was for myself. The more conversations I had with others, the more I learned that self-stigma was insidious and entrenched. It often spoke up in the form of beliefs and thoughts that masquerade as truths. As we talked about self-stigma and shame, that seemingly impenetrable wall began to crumble. When I reflected the strengths I saw in others, there seemed to be a realization that the internalized stigma is not at all true. Together we would take steps to stretch beyond our comfort zones and to behave as if stigma did not exist. In doing so, we unearthed genuine connection.
It takes time, but awareness is the first step. Stigma exists, and self-stigma is very real. Just noticing how it shows up is the beginning to shifting away from shame towards connection. As Brené Brown says: “If we share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” So, bit by bit, when we are in spaces that feel safe, we can take small steps to share pieces of our authentic selves. As we speak up, we reject the indoctrinated idea that people with Bipolar Disorder are somehow separate. I believe this will lead to finding the connection and belonging we truly deserve. If nothing else, know that the struggle is real for stigmatized groups, and you are not alone in it. We are Bipolar Together.