by Donald Kern
Stigma and Self-Acceptance:
Coming to Terms With Ourselves
As I sat at the conference table, trying to collect my thoughts, I reflected on what to say. The words came hard, a bit harshly. "I am Bipolar." Here I was, telling my colleagues, fellow Mental Health professionals, my secret. Once more, I was confronting the stigma of mental illness. In this case I was up against my own stigma, my prejudice and fear of my illness and fear of others' judgments: What would they think of me? Would they loose respect? Perhaps they would wonder if I would be able to do my job. And would my bringing this out in the open cause others to look at me differently, as someone irreparably flawed? Would I lose friendships as a result? Would I secretly agree with their judgments? In that moment, my previous life of manic episodes flashed before my eyes. How could I expect others to understand what it's like to be manic?
Having been diagnosed Bipolar twenty years ago, I have been through the denial and have come to terms with negative self-talk before. It seems, we, the mentally ill are destined to revisit this issue periodically. It's never over once and for all. Stigma, self-stigma, seems to be the "gift" that keeps on giving, a dubious gift, indeed. Perhaps, it is because we're continually coming to terms with our illness. Whether we're actively ill or in recovery, we have to accept our illness as a fact before we can deal with it successfully. We have to accept the various symptoms of our illness, accepting that we are sometimes grandiose, out of touch with reality, and mean, devious, or hurtful to the ones we love.
Self-acceptance of our behavior comes hard. We learn at an early age that those that are different, sometimes downright weird ,are to be shunned and avoided. Then, when we become the shunned and avoided, we are at first abhorred by our situation, that of taking on the mantle of the outcast. So of course, we try to deny it. And by denying it, we cut off any hope of treatment and the "urge" to health. We isolate ourselves. We're believing our worst P.R.
One would think that these thoughts would not be expressed in our more enlightened times. But, yet, it continues. Before we can come to terms with who and what we are, we have to accept our situation, grieve for our lost "normalness" and move on to getting the best treatment possible. Paradoxically, out of accepting our illness as an illness and accepting treatment, comes the possibility of stability, health, and recognition.
I sat musing over the issues as I continued to talk to my colleagues. What is my issue this time around I thought? Am I worried about my colleagues' opinion of me? Is my fear attached to their questioning my ability to perform my professional duties? Was I going to lose my livlihood, perhaps my license to practice? How long could I go before a relapse? Sometimes I feel like a walking timebomb, fearing my recovery could be over at any moment. What is it that I'm denying that has to be dealt with?
I had a thought of contrast between what I have been and what I've become, my grandiosity in wanting to become a therapist and my twenty-year struggle to achieve that role. I wanted to let my co-workers know me, to come out of the darkness. The old feelings were cropping up once more. I felt like a snake who has shed its skin times before, once more going through the feeling of insecurity and fear of others' judgments. Why bother, I asked myself? The answer came clearly. I need to be truthful with myself. I disclose myself, not only that others can learn from my experience, but also, so that I can grow. I let go of my fears and come out in the sun once more, for awhile, anyway. I remind myself of past experiences, the nights spent in skidrow hotels, staring into the darkness and living in images of myself leading a telepathic network, or lost in imagined conversations with figures from history.
My thoughts return to the here and now. It's fifteen years later, and here I am sitting at a staff meeting, my thoughts intent on intervention strategies with clients suffering problems with everyday living. I'm struck by the similarity between my delusions of fifteen years ago and the resultant present reality of my professional attainment. So close, this telepathic doctor, becoming a therapist, a healer.
Now I take my medication twice a day and go on with my life. I want to continue feeling right about myself. I want to facilitate healing by educating others. In the end, it's learning about each other and the fact that we all spring from the same fountain, that humanity marches towards a more just society. We struggle to accept ourselves in all our diversity. I play my role of educator, but I wrestle with fear beneath the surface. It goes with the territory. So, how could it be different, anyway?