When the Stigma Hurts!
I thought long and hard about sharing this personal experience. I feel very strongly about the effects of the stigma surrounding mental illness but it is difficult to put into words how I feel about the situation I am about to share.
One of the major factors that helped me decide to write this was the feedback from Bipolar World visitors who have been kind enough to email me and tell me what they got from some of my writings. In particular, a short email from one person received while I was going through these problems expressing her worries about letting family and friends know of her illness prompted me to write this.
I am also dealing with recent matters so I have to be a little circumspect about the sensibilities of others, so please forgive me if I am a little unclear about some of the details.
As I write this, I am struggling to cope with a deep feeling of betrayal and anger. Not since I decided to be open about my illness some time ago have I had the type of action I am about to describe happen to me. I have had people become a little distant since they found out I had a mental illness and I have had people become closer at the same time but it all kind of evened out.
This is what hurt this time.
I have a close relative who is going through a separation from his wife, and as sometimes happen, unfortunately, things get very personal. His wife is from one of the Asian cultures where mental illness is still very shameful and a stain on the family honour, so it doesn’t matter what the problem is, it must never be admitted or treated.
They haven’t been married for too long and have a 5-month-old baby boy and since the break up, my relative has been denied almost all access to seeing his son. Not surprisingly, as often happens after a break up, he has been treated for reactive depression.
Now his ex-wife has seized on this as being grounds for denying access because if he is mentally unstable she is scared of having her baby left in his care because of the danger. To try to back this contention up for a court hearing on access, she went to see a local psychiatrist from her national background to provide medical documentation.
A friend that was also a long time personal friend of my family and mine accompanied her. This friend had been like an extra daughter to my wife and I over the years as we helped her deal with a very turbulent family life and the eventual break up of her mum and dad. She had spent many an hour with my children particularly my eldest son and daughter, just talking over her worries and even stayed at out home a number of times when things were too much at home.
Only because of this friend’s closeness to my family, she was aware of my bipolar, my son’s depression following a marriage breakup and my daughter’s mild depression.
You can imagine my anger to find that as a justification for the application to deny access to my relative, that there was a medical report from this doctor stating that my relative was suffering from a deep mental illness and he also came from a family with a long history of mental illness, including bipolar and depression!!
Guess where the information about the bipolar and depression and the “long family history” came from. Of course it came from our common friend who deliberately used information that she learned because of her closeness to us, to hurt my relative and his chance of being granted access.
Thankfully the court had the sense to treat this document with disdain as it had no validity in the case in question and my relative now has set access time with his son each week.
Once my initial anger and that of my family’s had died down, I started to think whether my decision to be more open about having a mental illness had been the right thing to do. I was more upset that my mental illness had been used, not against me, but against another family member, and that a very close friend had done it.
It was about this time that the email I mentioned arrived and it really made me consider carefully my response. (Thank you Diana)
I realised that it is only because of the stigma still in society that some one could even think about implying that my mental illness was some how catch able or acquired by osmosis between family members. That it was so shameful. That some how it made, by association, my relative unfit to be a father to his son.
I feel even more determined to continue what little I can to be upfront about having a mental illness. To show that we cope in our own way just like everyone else to the ups and downs of life. There is always a risk that when someone finds out about our illness that they can’t cope with it and they withdraw.
That is their problem – not mine.
How comfortable a person feels about being more open in having a mental illness, is a very individual thing dependant on their circumstances and can only be decided by them. Any decision anyone makes I understand and support fully.
I just pose these questions:
Why should we be afraid of who we are? Our illness is only a part of us – not the whole. We are unique, special individuals, with many talents. We should not sell ourselves short. Could it be that we are so special because of our illness, not in spite of it?
28 March 2003
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