in case you haven’t heard, president obama officially declared may national mental health awareness month. (thanks president obama.) and i have something i want to say.
i’ve had a few experiences stored up over the past few months that gather importance when i think about them in aggregate. and i hope that this can add to the collective voice speaking out for all of us who carry the weight of that moniker “mental illness” against the names that we would rather call ourselves: person, friend, mother, wife, student, writer, thinker, creator, etc etc etc.
i had to visit the pediatrician twice in the same week. as part of some new regulation, we are required to fill out a form that declares various health problems among immediate family members of our children. one of those health problems is mental illness. i, ever the dutiful mother, paused over the checkbox, wondering what the implications would be – but placed a heavy “x” in the end because i’m anything but a liar. when i handed the form to the pediatrician on the first of what would be two visits she read it carefully. she paused seriously at my check mark. she then began a lengthy interrogation, asking me if i was on meds during my pregnancy. asking me the current state of my mental health. watching me out of the corners of her eyes. i could see i was on the chopping block. and her treatment of me, as though i was proven guilty of the crime, the crime of “mental illness”, made me nervous – pulling out all my ticks. i couldn’t stop touching my hair, tugging at my skirt. my eyes skittered about the room. i couldn’t make eye contact with her. i didn’t know what she wanted from me. by the end of a forty minute of appointment that was supposed to be a well-check up for my son, i was completely discombobulated. i had no script for what had happened.
that night, repeating the scene in my head, i realized that i should have stood up. i should have said, “if you would like to discuss my medical history we can have a separate appointment. my son is in the room. this situation is making me uncomfortable.” but for some reason, she made me feel like i didn’t have a right to be uncomfortable. i was “mental illness.”
luckily, i got a second chance. i was back at the pediatrician’s office the next day. of course, as is always the case on a large air force base, i saw a different doctor. i walked in with the same form declaring myself a carrier of “mental illness.” i handed the form to the doctor and sat down. she said, “who in the family has mental illness?” i said, “i do. i’m bipolar II.” she said, “you’re clearly doing very well.” and i said, “thank you. i am.” and that was that. we were able to pleasantly move on to my daughter’s well check up.
i was chatting with an acquaintance who started describing her recent symptoms of anxiety. she said that for twenty minutes or a half an hour at a time she would get feeling of uncontrollable fear for no reason. almost every day or every other day. she went on to say that this was too much for her and her husband to deal with, so she went to her mom’s to get some help after it had been going on for a week or so.
i hope that no one who has experienced this type of anxiety feels like i’m belittling them, because any type of anxiety is horrible. but to hear someone having such a tremendous reaction to what was to me a little bit of anxiety was really kind of revelatory.
i’ve had a passel of well-meaning people send me links to this blog post by jordan of my angle of repose. the well-meaning people have all said, “look! she’s bipolar too.”
and that’s where it all gets sort of tricky. the thing is, she isn’t bipolar. not. at. all. and i know that she wasn’t thinking of me, or anyone like me when she wrote that blog post, but it still gets me in a rankle. her “motherhood bipolar” is cured by a good sleep, and, well, mine isn’t. and i take issue with that. i take issue with people using this word that has so much weight and meaning for me and using it as a buzz-word.
but. i realize there’s nothing i can do about it. people are always going to call the weather bipolar. or say they’re feeling bipolar. [if you feel like reading more on the subject, i love this bit, isn't everyone a little bipolar? - in case you can't guess, the answer is NO!]
the most i can do, is let whatever small number of you i can know what it is really like to inhabit that word, so that maybe you can use it more carefully, use it with more intention.
i wanted to show you these three bits of my life to show a picture of this vast space there is inside the word “mental illness.” one minute i can be treated as though simply marking a box on a piece of paper makes me a pathological liar. the next minute the box can be easily dismissed as only one box in a series of boxes that makes up my total person. and it matters so much how people, especially other medical professionals, treat that diagnosis. and myself in relation to that diagnosis.
i want you to see that people who experience symptoms that i’ve been experiencing my whole life on a grand scale (e.g. night and day for years on end) run home for help from their moms. and so people with mental illness are often so much stronger than you give them credit for – it’s like they are running the same race as everyone else, but they have to run backwards, without shoes, in the dark, and no one tells them where the end of the race is.
and i want you to check inside yourself and see where you get your ideas about mental illness from. is it from movies like single white female and the three faces of eve? is it from tv shows that i’ve never heard of and probably can’t bear to watch? is it from creepy short stories like the yellow wallpaper? or is it from average people? real people? the people sitting next to you at PTA or on the bus or in your congregation? because, let me tell you the honest truth, most of the people with mental illness are the people in your neighborhood. and you aren’t going to catch mental illness by shaking their hand or having a cup of tea. but you might learn something about compassion. about endurance. about strength. and about downright awesomeness. so go meet someone with mental illness this month and consider yourself aware.
and if you’ve earned the label “mental illness” yourself or someone you know, i’d love to hear your thoughts.