Dear Mr. President:
I live with bipolar disorder.
Recently, you called the Republicans in the Senate “crazies”. While I will admit that they are out of control, you put me — a Democrat — in an awkward position.
Every day of my life I live with an illness that affects my mind and draws prejudice to me. I hear that I am violent even though statistics show otherwise; I hear that I am unable to think and reason; I am left out of society by unemployment and ostracization. People fear me because I am mentally ill.
You have been a great supporter of people like me. Your health care plan made it possible for the dysfunctions of our brain to receive the same right of treatment as the dysfunctions of our liver, our colons, our pancreas, our kidneys, our thyroid — to name a few. Our privacy is protected under HIPAA. These are all great things.
But when you call your political opponents “crazy”, you use my diagnosis as an insult. You add to the stigma that I must deal with from many quarters. And you put me in the same pen as the most destructive political movement since the decade before the Civil War.
I am crazy. The Republican Congress is willful, destructive, and evil. Please make the separation. Do not paint them with the brush that I already must wear.
My latest video in the series called My Life with Bipolar Disorder.
You’ve heard this on the news a lot every time there is a mass shooting perpetrated by a person who is mentally ill. Given that people died in the incident and that the person who committed them was sick, the promulgator of this argument wants us to draw the conclusion that the mentally ill are dangerous despite the fact that study after study show that the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Furthermore, it ignores other, more substantial causes of mass shootings that have nothing to do with mental illness. But because there is blood shed, the association of the incidents with mental illness is strong and a powerful if illogical premise for severe solutions.
There is a name for this type of logical fallacy and it is called “misleading vividness”. Because few of the shootings involve people who are mentally ill, Jaffe goes for tabloid reasoning (note how he loves The NY Daily News). It happened! It is going to happen again! Therefore forcing treatment and locking up the mentally ill is the answer!
I joined The Experience Project recently, which I describe as Facebook without links. One of the groups is called 50 Things About Me, so I created this list as a response to the implied question. It would be interesting to hear other people describe themselves in this fashion.
The current controversy over Sandra Bland has me bothered on several fronts. First, of course, is the police video and the inane pretext for the traffic stop. Sandra Bland was well within her rights. I do not doubt that she was beaten.
Second, though, is the willingness of some activists to grab on the assassination theory. Not that I don’t think this is possible — police being police sometimes pull this kind of stunt — but I am disturbed about the implications beyond this — namely that Sandra Bland just couldn’t have been mentally ill.
Sandra Bland did suffer from Post Partum Depression after losing a baby. Her family denies that it affected her much, but outsiders often fail to gauge the depth of suffering that those of us struggling with mental illness endure. The autopsy showed that she had been cutting herself — a not uncommon self-medication for those living with depression. Friends may be right that she had been happy after getting that job, but I know from personal experience with depression that you can swing catastrophically out of a good mood into a sour one in a matter of days, hours, or even minutes. She got hit with some crushing news: she had been charged with assault and she was in the belly of the beast, a system that routinely chews up those unfortunate enough to be caught inside of it. Her life was effectively ruined. Goodbye job.
Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind deserves to be a classic in the literature of bipolar memoir. But to tell the truth, when I read it, I couldn’t identify. Parts of Andy Berhman’s wild and crazy Electroboy seemed a little like me, but once again, I didn’t find my story there. I admired Marya Hornbacher’s Madness — what a literary gem! — but her life was very different from my own. Patty Duke’s Call Me Anna — “ah fuck,” I said when I found this book. “This is me.”
I tell people to read everything they can get their hands on about bipolar disorder because sooner or later they will find a story that resonates with echoes of their own. Bipolar disorder has many masks, each one fitting just one person. There is common ground with others, to be sure, but bipolar is not a cookie cutter disease. Each of us has our own patterns, each our own set of connections, and each manic episode can be different. Some episodes are euphoric and some are dysphoric. I know my signs and symptoms, but sometimes new ones inexplicably creep in.
Like attending support groups, reading bipolar memoirs reduces my feeling of isolation. When I saw myself in Call Me Anna, I realized that I had something in common with other people. The rages whose origins I never understood — this wasn’t me, the pacifist and the kindly friend — became explicable. I suffered from manic-depression and so did the neurotypicals who had the misfortune of knowing me. This realization made me diligent about taking my meds, going to therapy, and reading all that I could find. Perhaps this was driven, at first, by mania. Good. I had found something productive to do with that energy.
Sometimes I have an appetite for fixing people. When I do, I make it a point to shut up and listen for a while. (Or if it is a know-it-all who devalues my experience, find something else to do for awhile.) Everyone’s experience is different; I do not have all the answers. You will not hear me tell people in group the “true” motive behind their suicide attempt, what their character flaws are or hint at them, or give advice about experiences that I have not had (vicariously through a book does not count). I can only share my own story and that might not have anything to do with a person’s struggles. Compassionate listening is the true mark of a sage, I feel; and I am still not very good at it.
It is best to keep one’s ego small in these matters. Mine needs to go on a diet sometimes.
Support groups such as the one I attend often encourage fellow sufferers by sharing lists of people with our disorders who were successful. They are the most common explications of the benefits of being mentally ill and I do believe that they are helpful in instilling hope in those who have received diagnoses of bipolar disorder or depression. Thinking of Vincent Van Gogh or Percy Bysshe Shelley may tilt some towards grandiosity and denial, but most people take it to mean that they, too, can be able. Some such as New Age guru Tom Wooten go so far as to claim a “bipolar advantage”.
There’s a problem with this, however, and it is the failure to recognize how much people like Van Gogh and Shelley suffered. Van Gogh committed suicide. Shelley went to his doctors begging them for help with his catastrophic mood swings. In the end, the poet cavalierly ignored warnings of a storm at sea and went sailing anyways: he was found dead on the shores of Italy a few days later, an apparent drowning.
All of us who fight mental illness yearn for acceptance of who we are. None of us seeks the isolation which stigma brings. Comparisons of recovery rates in the industrialized world and the Third World by the WHO show that, one in six in the one and one in three in the latter* recover well enough from their first schizophrenic episode to function. Scientists suggest that the reason for this is less stigma and better family support in the latter. More important, I think, is the level of stress that afflicts one. Western societies are more competitive, more prone to casting off people who are seen as drains on resources. One finds oneself quickly isolated in the West and unless one has strong family support — witness the recoveries of Elyn Saks and Kay Jamison to name two — one may find oneself a prisoner of one’s apartment, denied any job or company.
Just a note of peripheral interest here: This is National Minority Mental Health Month. (Does that mean white people here in California?) Seriously, access to mental health resources for minorities, particularly African Americans, is limited. Many end up getting their treatment in jails instead of hospitals and through private psychiatrists like white people do.
I have opposed a bill by Representative Tim Murphy because it starts us down the road to forced treatment, which eventually, I believe, will create privatized “public” mental hospitals. (Even F. Fuller Torrey opposes these, but I think he is dreaming when he calls for government run mental hospitals. The private prisons movement will not hesitate to seize the opportunity to grab this new sector of the incarceration system.) These, I think, will turn out to be another place to warehouse African Americans and other minorities while white people will be able to stay out thanks to their access to outpatient mental health care. Rest assured that privatized mental hospitals will keep patients on the sick rolls as long as they can, indefinitely if it is allowed.
African Americans and other unprivileged Americans deserve access to decent community health care centers, an idea which the likes of Torrey and his lap dog D.J. Jaffe have written off as a failure — even though these have never been properly funded since the 1963 Community Mental Health Services Act. Murphy’s Law does call for grants to start 10 pilot programs for community mental health, but there is no guarantee of follow-through after the period of experimentation is over. Murphy’s Law also puts the burden of care on overstressed families, meaning that those patients whose families don’t have the resources will continue to lack decent care. (Meaning African Americans versus European Americans.)
Any future mental health legislation needs to ensure that programs help everyone. Compelling states to fully fund community mental health clinics where the staff are not overburdened and patients can get the medication they need is essential. Then we can apply evidence-based practices.
Posted on in Dreams
The curious thing about this dream is that I am both the main participant and an onlooker. I ride a bicycle quickly through a strip mall, passing many stores — at least one of which is empty. I ride fast, dodging people as I come to them. A series of landscaped pits open up in front of me. Both ramps and stairs lead down onto concrete floors. The challenge is to find the ramps. I swerve about, looking for the ramps. At the last pit, the one ramp is very far away, so I have to ride half way around the pit to get to it. When I get to the top, a couple of guys sword-fighting at the bottom of the stairs block my path. I yell at them to get out of the way as I speed between them. One of the fellows gets on his bike and starts to follow me. A voice tells me that I have finally met my match. I lose him, but I come to a place where a pudgy cyclops blocks a ramp up. I steer around him. He starts to chase me, clenching his pale fists. I find myself on a city street, pedaling as fast as I can. A block away, the light is green. I find myself muttering “Stay green. Stay green” as I wake up.