Have you ever had one of those dreams where it feels real? You’re barely able to realize things don’t make sense before you wake up and still feel the hurt, loss, anger, or panic from the dream. Maybe you’re indignant about discovering them cheating on you in a dream. Perhaps you feel confused at how aroused you were with an ex lover just moments ago. Your children are not in any danger, yet you run to make sure they’re breathing.
Now, imagine talking about it, but people shun you, suggest you need drugs, or just quit talking to you. Imagine if every idea you propose at work or espouse online is met with dismissal because if you can’t control dream thoughts or feelings, your awake thoughts and feelings can’t be trusted. Sounds like a nightmare doesn’t it? That’s life with a mental illness.
When you awoke from that dream, those thoughts, images, and experiences were real to your brain. You’re able to think and communicate and feel outside those dreams, too. So it is for many of us most of the time. We each have our own normal baseline, but are too often held to a standard of “normal” that, when you really think about it, doesn’t exist. Yet the rest of our thoughts and emotions are mistrusted once we tack the words mental illness (MI) to our collective identity.
I have bipolar disorder (formerly manic depression). There are two forms: bipolar 1 and bipolar 2. There’s a Lifetime movie about a bipolar woman who had to go off her meds while pregnant. She spent money, had a high sex drive, and lost touch with reality (all while being used to promote the pro-life agenda). That’s more characteristic of bipolar 1, although highly dramatized. I have the second type, which tends to be misdiagnosed as major depression. I still have high points, known as hypomanias, in which I don’t always lose touch with reality, and often I’m productive and in generally a better mood. When I get depressed, though, it can get really bad. I can even get depressed or anxious during a hypomania. I was also diagnosed as having ADHD more than once, and while stimulants help me focus, I wonder if inattention and distractibility aren’t just symptoms of racing thoughts and mental fog.
Want to know how bad MI ableism is? I’m ashamed I used the “this is mostly depression” line because depression is more socially acceptable than bipolar. When you live in a world where people associate your MI with mass shooters and can’t tell the difference from another MI, you do anything you can to lessen the stigma.
It’s an oppressed identity that’s hard for the larger feminist movement to fully embrace, in my experience. We’re quick to rally for gay rights or black lives, but we don’t talk about mental illness nearly as often. MI ableism is systemic and institutionalized – literally.
My state actually asks citizens to disclose bipolar disorder on the driver’s license renewal form. This is a separate question than the one asking if you’ve ever been diagnosed with a psychological disorder. Specifically, cops want to know if you’re bipolar when they pull you over, so they can anticipate that you’re violent. This is our only representation in media. Cracked has some really great pieces on this, by the way.
Currently, I manage my illness without medication. It’s not that I’ve never found a medication that works, it’s that the only medication that did work can cause a life-threatening reaction if I forget to take it at the same time every day. The mentally ill are not known for our memory skills, even with a good drug intervention. I have a kick-ass therapist, though. I’m tracking where I am on the mood spectrum for the first time. Carrie is involved with therapy as well, learning how to best help me and manage their own caregiver burnout.
Many of us, if intelligent and privileged enough, can manage our mental health and be productive members of society. Yet being able to see the forest despite the trees has its own pitfalls. You become the spokesperson for mental illness, or for your specific mental illness. You are held to a standard. You’re presumed smart enough to never “go off your meds” or even “too smart” to have an episode. Because I’m self actualized and usually avoid others when I’m feeling particularly off, people have thought I’m making it up for attention when I come out, or they assume I can always control it. This is ableism. This is respectability politics for the mentally ill. I must be in control at all times, or I can’t say managing without drugs works.
Professionals have prescribed drugs like throwing glitter on glue art to see what sticks. Then their offices call me, freaking out over a $75 no-show fee when I forgot my next appointment, as MI patients often do, because we’re mentally ill. They’ve also let me walk out without making another appointment and never call to check on me because they either don’t care or think I’ll be just fine.
I’m thankful to have the care team I do today, though. I could not get through a lot of this without Carrie, who is my rock, my confidant, my voice of reason.
Ableism, with regard to the differently abled emotionally, is so ingrained in us as a culture, and its history is gory. It’s something I deal with every day, but because I’m intelligent and functional, I also must deal with the respectability bullshit, which also includes this very post. I hide my MI status to avoid it, but sometimes it comes to a head. The lens through which I see the world is not only colored by my MI, but how I’m often treated, simply for being that weirdo who dreams. Heaven help me if I let it get to me. Sometimes it does. Some days I wish I could wake up and be “normal” – whatever that is.