People were convinced I was functioning just fine because I was efficient, productive, and successful. I had everybody fooled with my illness. While my bipolar disorder remained undiagnosed,
I secretly wished that my disability would be a physical one, one which people would actually notice.
I wished for a broken arm that people could see. Maybe people would be supportive and help me if I had diabetes or, God forbid, cancer. Maybe I needed to show up to the next family function in a wheelchair to get somebody’s attention.
Once I was diagnosed, though, and given what I referred to as my “death sentence,” things changed quickly. No, my family and friends did not come rushing to my side to support me in battling against my illness. It was only a fantasy of mine that this was going to happen.
The stigma of my disorder was almost as bad as having to come to terms with the fact that I was mentally ill and needed treatment. And the stigma, I realize now, “started” with me. I initiated it.
It was a result of my own naiveté at age 28. When the doctor diagnosed me and used the term “bipolar disorder,” I really had no idea what he was talking about.
I was under the impression that the illness was degenerative and that I might not live to see my next birthday. I asked the doctor how many other people there were like me and he told me about 2.5 million people in the United States alone–that statistic today is closer to 5.5 million.
My doctor tried to calm me down and talk me through the diagnosis, but I was self-stigmatized by my new label. And then, of course, he had to remind me that I was now part of a category of people called “the mentally ill.” Oh, God. I was a lunatic, a freak, a psycho, a crack-up, and a mental case.
When I left his office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and walked home across Central Park that snowy morning, I imagined being forced to have electroshock therapy like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I persuaded myself that I was overreacting, taking this too far. That could never happen to me. But actually, I wasn’t taking it too far. Less than three years later I found myself in the operating room of a psychiatric hospital in Manhattan, lying on a gurney with electrodes attached to my head and receiving electroshock treatments, 200 volts of electricity running through my brain.
The stigma first hit me in the outside world with a little help from the written prescription my doctor gave me.
It was filled out for medications thought to control my bipolar. On seeing it, my own neighborhood pharmacist remarked, “Your doctor’s putting you on all of this medication? Are you okay?” I didn’t respond. I paid for my four prescription drugs and left the pharmacy wondering exactly what he meant by “all of this.”
Was I some sort of “mental case” because I was now taking four different medications? Did the pharmacist know something about my condition that I didn’t know? And did he have to say it in such a loud voice, just hours after my diagnosis? No, he didn’t. That was unkind. It seemed that even the pharmacist had an issue with mentally ill patients and trust me, mentally ill patients in Manhattan were the bread and butter of his business.