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If you know me personally, would you have guessed I had a mental illness? You probably thought I was a little different or eccentric, but really, would you have guessed it? It was a heck of a shock to me that April in 2005 when I received the news that I had Bipolar Disorder Type 1. It was pretty apparent to others at that particular time in my life as I was extremely ill, however prior to that time, not one family member, friend or any of the many doctors I had seen over the years had seen any sign of mental illness.

So in the short 7 years that I have had this diagnosis, I have certainly experienced stigma. Below are just a few examples. I am most certainly not looking for pity here, my goal is to provide examples so you don’t make some of the unintentionally hurtful mistakes others have. I truly forgive those that are so uncomfortable with mental illness that they have responded so poorly. It is lack of knowledge that has caused this behaviour and my hope and prayer is that the current campaigns to End Stigma will further educate people. To illustrate my point, let me start with myself.

Stigmatizing myself:

In an educational session I was participating in last week, I realized that I have been keeping this illness a secret as I was feeling ashamed of having Bipolar Disorder. I needed to give my head a shake. I’m ashamed of something that is totally out of my control? Would I be ashamed if I had diabetes? If I had epilepsy? If I had hyperthyroidism? You get my point here. This is a medical condition, it is passed on genetically and I was born with it. It may look ridiculous that I am saying all of this while writing under a pseudonym, but unfortunately, this information could negatively affect my career so that is my impetus for disclosing my illness this way. Bottom line, I am no longer living in shame. My suggestion is you respect a friends’ privacy if they have a mental illness, but there certainly is no reason to feel ashamed of it.

One other point to add here, I make a very big distinction for myself and you’ll note I always state “I have Bipolar Disorder”. In other words I do not say “I am Bipolar”. This is important as I am NOT my illness and a great way to support a friend with a mental illness is to point this out to them. I am Amelia Mims, not Bipolar Disorder which is just one of the many very interesting aspects of this valuable, supported, well-loved person.

Friends lost that stigmatized:

One friend would ask me to babysit and then be visibly uncomfortable leaving her child alone with me. While visibly uncomfortable leaving me alone with her 2 year old, she would ask why I hadn’t attended parties she had thrown…parties for which I had never received an invite. She would even go so far as confirm I was actually taking my meds. Obviously in her mind, I was untrustworthy, unfit for her child and her social circles. Needless to say, we are no longer friends. My prayers are with her and her son that she will find compassion for those she meets with a mental illness.

Another friend had told me in great detail how disgusted she was with her mother-in-law who has Bipolar Disorder. Now, she had said most of this prior to my diagnosis, but having so much detail about her real views on this issue, it was just impossible for me to continue our friendship, especially when I saw her visceral reaction of disgust to the news of my diagnosis. I sadly regret I have lost touch with this friend as she was so special in every other way, and I truly hope the current campaigns to End Stigma have spoken to her.

Local business stigma:

A local business owner would literally run away from me when I entered their local Café (needless to say I don’t shop there any more). Now granted, this business owner had seen me ill, but he had also seen me well for over 1 year prior to that. Unforgiven for 1 off-day in this man’s presence when clearly there was something going very wrong for me? I tried to shop in that Café for over 2 years after the “incident” of unwellness and show this man that I was ok and actually a really good customer. He didn’t “get it”, continued to run away, and I discovered an even better Café just up the street.

Co Worker Stigma

I had a co-worker tell me “You chose a good time to be sick because it is really stressful at work right now.” I chose to get sick? Sheesh, I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy and I most certainly don’t “choose” to get depressed to the point that I can barely go out, am haunted with negative thoughts the depression is so severe and can’t focus on anything. Needless to say, I’ve learned a valuable lesson about disclosing at work. Admittedly, I’m still a little worried about what the consequences will be for disclosing to this one ‘friend’ at work.

Another co-worker disclosed compassionately that her mother had Bipolar Disorder. After sharing that I did as well, she advised that she couldn’t stand her mother for her illness, she turned red in the face and walked away from me. She was very friendly afterwards, but would not stand close to me or get onto an elevator with me. Thankfully, she is no longer with the company. Just so everyone knows, mental illness isn`t contagious so it`s truly safe to get onto the elevator with me.

I’ve tried to accept all of this gracefully, but deep down inside each one did hurt at the time. It`s all served to make me stronger and all of these people are long forgiven. They are the ones with the issues, not me. That’s why I’m sharing this. Much like we accept cultural and gender differences, we need to accept those with mental illnesses. Mental Illness doesn`t make one bad, just different and isn`t that what makes us Canada?

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