CHATTING WITH CLAMS
The mentally ill frequently commit crimes on television in a way diabetics do not. Have the Law and Order folks ever created an episode where someone is compelled to break the law due to irritable bowel syndrome? I am damn sure those folks are bound (no pun intended) to be a might cranky, but they are never seen robbing, killing, stalking or maiming on television in an uncontrolled fit of I.B.S.
I wasn’t born bipolar and it’s not my identity. I see myself as a person with an illness, not an illness. How I see my self doesn’t stop others from adding labels though: Bipolar. Moody. Strange. Untrustworthy. Different. Medicated. I can click the remote on any given primetime evening and watch a police drama where someone with the same labels is on trial for one heinous crime or another. The mentally ill frequently commit crimes, it seems, in a way that the wart-afflicted do not.
The media can be very bipolar (sorry, couldn‘t resist) in it’s portrayal of the mentally ill. Of course, we see the creepy, scary folks that eat bugs. The homeless. The stalkers. The people who pee in doorways while reciting the Gettysburg address and make you want to take another way home. Those that run naked at major sporting events. The people who are so dirty and seem so crazy; you feel justified not being able to say to yourself, “They can’t help it, they are just sick.”
Yet, an opposite portrayal exists as well and I worry that being mentally ill is seen as a bit too cool by some.
Someone with a daughter once told me, “I don’t know what’s wrong with her these days. She thinks going to an institution would be a hoot. She can become best buds with Angelina Jolie and it will be just like that movie. Oh crap, what’s it called? Interruption of girls, girls interrupt something. Oh I don’t know, something interrupts something in it.”
This might be funny if her daughter hadn’t overdosed--at 12.
I worry about replacing stigma with an over-fascination that borders on side-show. I worry that when I talk about being bipolar and people are politely bobble-head nodding, inside their heads are they screaming “OH MY GOD, SHE DID WHAT?” and making a mental map to the nearest exit.
Despite the media’s portrayal; we are not all bug-eating door-way peeing naked streakers or hopelessly hip inpatients. There is a middle-ground to live in with bipolar disorder and most of us are there. The way I fight stigma is by being open.
I answer the questions.
“It’s called Bipolar Disorder II, rapid cycling with mixed episodes. Yes, that is a mouthful. Yes, I’ve hallucinated. No, not often. The funniest one? Well--It’s hard to classify the psychotic as amusing but I suppose the funniest one was when the linguini with clam sauce was talking. It did too! No, it really did. Well. Hmmmm. What it was saying is a hard one. No matter how close I moved my ear to the plate I still couldn’t tell what they were saying. I ultimately decided the clams weren’t talking to me but amongst themselves.”
I am willing to talk openly about my meds.
“There are a lot of drugs used. Mood stabilizers were found to help and mine are anticonvulsants like epileptics use. (I feel on safe ground here because a drug used for epilepsy seems neutral and doesn’t pack the drooling-stigma-punch of Thorazine.) There are the ones for depression. Some bipolar people are on them as well. Oh, and the anti-anxiety drugs, the sleeping pills and anti-psychotics are used (The last one can be a bit tricky. While people say they want information, I lose a lot of folks on the anti-psychotics. People rarely seem okay with anything delusion related)”
The side effects.
“Some make me tired. Befuddled. Liver failure is always a risk. Some gave me acne. Hair loss. Weight gain. No, this one didn’t make me gain weight but I gained 80 pounds one year on a different one. Yes, that was a lot of weight. No, Your right. Haven’t lost it all. Thanks for noticing.”
It’s possible when people ask if I see and hear things like TV crazy-people do, they really don’t want to know. Maybe they really want to know that the people they know aren’t all that creatively-inclined in their daily thoughts.
Maybe what they want me to say is, “I am just like you, silly!”
That no one really has those kinds of thoughts. Well--no one they know. No one with a son in their kid’s class in school. No one that shops in the same stores as them. That might be pinching the melons right next to them. No one that gets haircuts at the same place. Or shops for panty hose at the same drugstore. Or waits on line behind them at the ATM.
Hopefully, being open and comfortable about myself will lessen stigma over time even if it makes my world a little uncomfortable for the moment. Granted, copping to hearing clams speak amongst themselves isn’t something most people are quite ready for but most people aren’t ready to change their minds about anything without a little push.
About ten years ago I went to a seminar with a speaker who couldn't make it through a sentence without cursing like a sailor. It was his way to punctuate strong points. After an hour or so a woman got up and said through gritted teeth, “I’m not accustomed to that kind of language.” The speaker looked right at her and screamed , “FUCK! FUCK! FUCK! And…. FUCK again!--Are you accustomed to it yet?”
It was a point well taken, with me anyway. People live at their own comfort level until they are challenged. Being that in-your-face does have a place but it isn‘t always necessary. Just living visibly in the bipolar middle-ground can be enough. Even if people seem a bit queasy, at first, about talking shellfish, I hope knowing me will widen the middle-ground and give me a bigger place to live, over time.
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