On a recent trip to my hometown, my brother, sister and I went out to dinner with our mother. My brother told us a story about his 20-something son, who is looking for work in the college town where he lives. Apparently he had overheard something disturbing at one place and mentioned it to the interviewer.
“Oh, she’s just a crazy bipolar (witch),” the interviewer said.
Appalled, I leaned across the table, looked my brother in the eye and said, “Your sister’s bipolar.”
Looking at me just as evenly, he said, “You’re not crazy.”
“And we wouldn’t work for you, anyway,” added my sister.
I appreciate the familial support, if that’s what it was, but it still bothers me that people throw around terms they don’t really understand. Show of hands: How many of you can properly define the characteristics of schizophrenia?
I try to be open about my mental health because I want to play a part in stigma-busting, and I believe that can best be done one person at a time. At the same time, when I’m not feeling well, I’m the first to call myself “nuts” or “crazy” or similarly derogatory terms. That’s how I feel when the disease, not me, is in control.
The difference is that I’m allowed to use those terms on myself, because I’m the one dealing with the stuff. People who have no concept whatsoever of what it’s like to live with mental illness – they have no business using those terms. The fact that most of them don’t have the sense to be ashamed of their ignorance is just as painful.
By now everybody’s heard the statistic that 1 in 4 people in the U.S. have mental illness. I admit that I have not done oodles of research into that. I don’t know how many people have which of the disorders, and it’s really irrelevant for the purposes of this post. What matters is the need for sensitivity. Would you be as dismissive and rude to someone with cancer as that interviewer was to that woman?
People with cancer aren’t defined by their illness. Neither are people with mental illness. Although I still fall prey to it sometimes, I try not to tell people that “I’m bipolar.” I try to say “I have bipolar disorder.” It’s an aspect of who I am, not the whole of it. Next time you start to say something heartless, take a second and think of that instead.