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Honesty or silence: A hard decision for the mentally ill

They say, ‘know thyself’. My quest for self-discovery compounds continuously and remains endless. It is part of the journey. After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder midway through college, my thirst for self-discovery grew. It was reflected by many of the courses I signed up to take. My final class in college was part of the requirements for my major; this worked out well as the course examined depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia through readings and class discussion. The course was called Sociology of Mental Health and Illness. A clear chance to learn about my own mental illness, which I had already been battling for the past two years on a pretty extreme level.

First day of class my teacher spoke about his own journey with mental illness reflecting on his personal bout with depression -- something he had just gotten through. Throughout the semester, the teacher hammered home the idea of being labeled with a mental illness, and how that label correlated to a stigma and a negative one at that. His analysis was spot on. Sitting in the classroom having spent the last two years of my life dealing with my own mental illness, I could confirm that this label he was talking about and the stigma that goes with it were harsh realities of my life. These two entities were now a large part of how I was defined. Maybe not by myself but definitely by others. Moreover, they were there to stay. People view you through the scope of the mental illness you have and make preconceived notions about who you are. Sadly enough, perception of the masses tends to manifest as reality whether deserving or not deserving.

We read literature on many things that pertained directly with my mental illness including excerpts of the DSM-5 documents or manuscript. (The DSM -5 handbook is what healthcare professionals use to classify, if you will, mental illnesses in America). I learned everything I wanted to learn from that manual as it pertained to my personal mental illness. Not only did I absorb the material in this class for my own benefit, I had a leg up on all the other students in the class as I was experiencing everything we discussed first hand. There was one major catch; My teacher, so engrossed and disgusted with, perhaps his own experience having recently been diagnosed with depression, preached to our class that because there is such an immense negative stigma surrounding mental illness, one should never expose their ‘status’ of their personal mental illness at work or, for the most part, ever. Here I was, a real live bipolar person in a class practically made for me and ready to tell all my stories. However, I heeded the advice of the professor and kept my mouth shut till the last day of class.

At the end of the semester, like many sociology classes, we had to write an extensive term paper on a topic related to the course material. The last class was held at the professor’s apartment. We all sat in a circle to talk about what our final papers were on. I hadn’t begun to write mine, nor had I even picked a topic, but when it was my turn to share with the group, I let the cat out of the bag. I explained to the whole class that I was probably going to write my paper on my own account with bipolar disorder. All seated in a circle, the professor was standing at my two o’clock and his jaw dropped. Here’s a student in his class that shows up, sits in the same seat, and pretty much just falls asleep. I did the readings but my classroom participation was beyond lackluster. The teacher stopped me from speaking any further, he had to point out what had just become obvious, ‘you mean to say you’re in a class called Sociology of Mental Health and Illness where we talked at length about bipolar disorder and you never said anything about your own bout with the disorder till now.” I wasted no time with my response, ‘I would’ve happily said something, but you made it clear very early on that we shouldn’t reveal that we have a mental illness because of the negative stigma’. After that, I had the floor. I talked to the class for the next fifteen minutes all about my initial hospitalization and anything else that seemed fun to discuss at the time. After that last meeting in my final class in college I didn’t feel like I had to write a paper. I just blew the socks off my teacher in an oral presentation that showed a clear understanding of the coursework we encountered throughout the class. Plus, I was the one who was going to be dealing with my mental illness till my heart gives out or my brain shuts off.

Discovering who I am and what the right thing to do can be really tricky on the mental illness front. Do I remain an open book at my workplace or do I hide my diagnosis. There really is no right answer. Different jobs, different bosses, different management can all play important factors on the right way to navigate those waters. I took an office job 7 years ago, and I was afraid to even bring it up -- bring up something that is a huge part of my life. I hid it for two years and it tore me apart. It was really hard not being able to explain myself to really good friends just because of the fear of being judged and perhaps losing my job or being overlooked for possible promotions. Looking back, I was afraid for no reason. The fear was just noise in my head, and I was silly enough not to ignore it. Last year I worked at a restaurant as a server. On two different occasions I went into work ready to clock-in but knowing full well I was really strung out. The first time my mania conflicted with my work schedule, to put it liberally, I spoke candidly with the assistant general manager and he not only told me to go home right away, he made it a point to explain that if I ever had any type of mental issues to not be shy one bit and told me he was always there to talk about it if I ever needed to. When I needed a day off and the general manager was on duty, the same treatment held true. It was remarkable! (this treatment brings tears to my eyes just as I write about it). It is beyond hard initiating those conversations, and trying to explain that you’re just not capable that day and you need sleep. It’s hard because you have to admit your own weakness, a weakness that pops up here and there but in no way is a reflection of who you are.

I don’t have the right answer for each individual case. All I do know is that in the past five years it feels to me like the times are changing. Yes, if you have a mental illness you are labeled with that illness and it sticks with you permanently. Yes, there is a misconception about these types of things and therefore there is a negative stigma. I had a doctor at the last psych ward I was in -- he was on the phone with my dad and myself -- he explained that people with a mental illness actually have more rights, rights that are necessary and needed, than a regular person. We are pretty well protected and shouldn’t be bashful about who we are. In the waters and landscapes I find myself in today there seems to be more empathizers than haters. It is truly comforting.

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