Remember Oprah Winfrey’s amazing acceptance speech at the Golden Globes Award Show this year? It was a call-to-action for girls and women to continue the fight for equal justice. It’s thrilling to see that sexual harassment, something I took for granted when I was young, is in the light and that things are changing. I have bipolar disorder. Oprah’s speech made me think about all of us living with mental illness. Is it time to join together, everyday people who live with mental illnesses, and share our stories? Would we be safe?
The stigma against mental illness is still powerful and pervasive in America, especially for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Many of us prefer to be silent for good reasons. If we share our illness, we risk being marginalized both socially and economically.
I have the luxury of telling people about my manic depression because I am self-employed. At the age of 57, my friend group is stable. I no longer fear being ostracized or losing my job. When I was younger, these fears went everywhere with me, affected my self-confidence, and hurt my family. One mom in our neighborhood wouldn’t let her children come in our house because I “was crazy.” Her fear infected the neighborhood and devastated our family.
We have our champions and organizations like The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that support us, but we are mostly silent as individuals because the risk is too big. Oprah’s speech was a call-to-action for me to write more stories about mental illness. We all deserve empathy and acceptance. This won’t happen unless people get to know us. To see us living productive lives with mental illness.
I’ve learned that telling my story changes the way people think about bipolar disorder. When I share that I am bipolar, people seem surprised and sometimes shocked, not because I am mentally ill, but because I don’t “show signs.” If we have a conversation about my illness, they tell me they can’t understand how I live a such a normal life. Their experience of bipolar disorder is a comic book version of the disease.
My so-called normal life is a work-in-progress like everyone else. The difference is that I am more sensitive than most people and sometimes too intense. I rely on the sun and quiet time to give me balance, and I take medication every day.
I recently wrote a story about resolutions and how we should focus on making our inherent gifts magnificent instead of trying to change. The same is true for people living with mental illnesses. We have so much to offer that is brilliant and beautiful. Mentally ill people have the gift of empathy. We also have the gift of emotional intelligence because of our experiences living with mental illness. We tend to be more creative and insightful than other people. These gifts are in high demand in the work force.
For everyone living with a mental illness, know that you have a place and that you have inherent gifts that you can make magnificent. Gifts for everyone to see and appreciate. The world needs us now more than ever. You can begin to erase the stigma against mental illness by sharing your story. Please pass it on. Person to person is how things change.
The biggest gift of sharing that I am bipolar is people telling me their stories in return. It feels so good to give someone the opportunity to tell a story that’s been a secret. Being able to listen in these circumstances feels like one of the best forms of love.