Guilt is the mainstay of some of us who struggle with bipolar disorder. I saw my mind disintegrate during the nineties. At the same time, I was mocked for my ferocity and klutziness in writing, an irony because I scored a 5 on the AP English examination. Where others hitchhiked nude down the freeway, I had the Internet. And there is a record out there of all my episodes for the world to see.
From time to time, I get reminded of this. Once someone sent me an email by accident. He meant to warn his friends that “it” — meaning me — was back. I wrote him a pointed note about his insensitivity, but that didn’t help. The affair shuttled me into this shell that I made to avoid negativity. This is not the only incident, just one of the most painful. I have stopped mentioning them to my wife. She only knows that my spirit is mostly broken, that I live mostly just to keep myself walking the flat track that loops endlessly around my being. I dare not run.
In more recent times, I sensed that some people use the fact of my bipolar to shove me away from participating in anything interesting. I don’t feel that I can attend my wife’s Quaker meeting, for example, because I am the husband who suffers from mental illness. There’s a forced kindliness that I feel there when they get me to talk (I mostly listen) and a rush to the assumption that I will lose control if I am not stopped now.
To cite an example of this (and it happens elsewhere, too) I ran into some members of the meeting while we were taking a trip to the Mojave Desert. They were on their way back from Death Valley, so I mentioned that we had just been to the national preserve just across the highway. One of these “Friends” told me “We don’t have time to go there.” I just blinked at him. Where had this come from? Had I insisted that we do this? We spoke a little more. I mentioned the volcanoes just down the road. Again the insistence that they didn’t have time.
There was a third person, not a Quaker, who picked up the conversation. We discussed the many things that remained to be explored in the preserve, how we loved the place. This person made no assumptions about my intentions and we had a good talk. It made a difference in how I felt about him and about myself. This man made me human again.
Other incidents have troubled me. One woman told me of her awful childhood living with a bipolar sufferer. I did not dispute this — we can have a painful effect on those around us when we do not take our medications. But at the same time I felt a devaluation of all of us who struggle with this illness. The implication I received from this woman was that we should be abandoned. And I, who am nearly alone except for my wife, dread that possibility.
Quakers believe in the leadings of the Holy Spirit. In 1992, I felt led to go to former Yugoslavia to help the peace movement. It was a crazy time in my life and I made a reputation for myself that isn’t sound. At least I think so because people aren’t seeking me out to see what I think on matters 20 years later. I have spoken of this in Quaker groups. When I do, the Friends suddenly become uneasy with me because of my present distrust in myself of these feelings.
Do not think for a moment that the Friends are alone in this. There are plenty of people who put down the mentally ill, often in strange places like Alcoholics Anonymous whose Big Book describes manic-depression as one of the causes of their illness. Here, like in the Friends, they just don’t want to hear about that — perhaps because many “dry-drunks” are undiagnosed or because of the obsession of some AA members that you do not take any chemical aids to help with so much as a headache. Witness, too, the predators who offer prayer as an antidote to the panics, the mood swings, and the hallucinations. Some go so far as to offer faith healing that will “erase” the condition altogether. These, too, bear stigma: if you still feel the symptoms then you must not be praying hard enough.
From all of these, I withdraw. I hear it said by members of the Quaker Meeting that I should not judge it by a few people, but I feel that an organization is known by what they tolerate. And when they say this, I feel that my feelings are merely written off as more deliriums. So this is why I stay close to home on Sundays, showing only now and then for a luncheon or a talk. If I were a better Quaker, I would take it as a leading of the spirit to address these prejudices. But too much do I dread the clash with the uneducated and the prejudiced. Too much do I fear the rejection of my claims. What is clear to me is subtle to others who do not have my illness. If I tell my wife, she just sighs.
It is better to just prevent a relapse, to stay out of the world. And that sucks.