Posted by: shelliejelly | October 21, 2009

I sometimes

I guess perhaps because I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with bipolar, even while growing up, O.’s diagnosis didn’t scare me. Like I’ve said and said and said, I was pretty much in denial for the first, what has it been?, year. But scared? No. O., as a person, didn’t change. I understood I still understood him, no matter the added information.

But mental illness wasn’t anything I ever joked about, or casually referenced, outside of using words that don’t instantly bring to mind a particular diagnosis, like looking at my dog chasing her tail and barking and saying, “Stop acting crazy!”

Recently though, I’ve had reason to stop and take notice of how some people misuse—innocently, perhaps—words that reference mental illness. Sitting in a meeting with colleagues who are explaining what they are responsible for to members of another department, the person to my right speaks of how some of our clients can be, shall we say, indecisive about how they feel. And, in the privacy of the room, he laughs, “And you sometimes want to ask them, ‘Hey, are you bipolar?'”

My internal dialogue immediately chattered, Is that what you think of this disease? That it’s all about mood swings? Only to realize that there are probably a good many people who misunderstand the nature of bipolar, considering the disease nothing more than a battle between depression and mania—two states that are even further confused.

A different colleague told the story of a client who was hard to work with by saying, “Apparently she’s magic. She never sleeps and gets all of these ideas and just doesn’t make sense.” Perhaps she was trying to be clever, bring some levity to what appears to be a fairly serious situation, but I still felt myself cringe at the misrepresentation, the blatant disregard, no matter how unintentional, for those who suffer from mental illness. Witnessing true mania is nowhere close to magic, no matter what the sick individual says or how they act. I’ve watched O. recollect manic moments with shame and embarrassment, not once with wonder or pride.

But the conflict occurs because what’s to be done? Do I stop these meetings and interject my own personal experience with mental illness? I hardly think that would do more than getting myself labeled sensitive. Then there would be the continual, if unconscious, guard: What can I say to Michelle? or, even worse, Wow, I had no idea.

That is the heart of the matter, right there. Truthfully, no, they don’t have any idea beyond how the media and acquaintances and random encounters have contextualized bipolar for them. Did they see an interview with someone suffering from the disease and figure that is how bipolar always manifests itself? Did they hear a story about a crazy aunt who, like someone with a fatal or terminal disease, was finally summed up in hushed tones, “Oh, yes, she was bipolar.”

I don’t know anyone’s exposure or comfort level with mental illness, and it’s not information you find out easily. No one has ever come up to me, for instance, and asked, “So, how do you feel about mental illness?” The subject, like so many others, isn’t filed under “general conversation” or “easy openers.” For me, the truth about mental illness is that it is an uncomfortable topic that comprises a whole range of sometimes opposing emotion. Complex and simple. Tender and maddening. Understandable and elusive.

But, for me, too, mental illness is a necessary conversation. I have to understand, at the very least, how O. sometimes experiences bipolar, because to do anything less would be unthinkable. I know he struggles; I can feel it in the waves of his emotion that ebb out to me by virtue of the child we share. And, without a doubt, he, and his diagnosis, can’t be defined as mood swings and magic.

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