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J.R. Buchanan

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Me, My Thoughts, and I

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Stigma becomes personal

I'm normally very open about having a mental illness. In fact, I like to talk about it, I see it as part of being a mental health advocate. And who doesn't like talking about themselves? I normally feel this way in spite of thew stigma of mental illness, indeed because of the stigma of mental illness. Showing that a normal-seeming guy like me has a mental illness and is merely an ordinary person with a chronic illness seems a good thing. But the other day, I found myself feeling uncomfortable about telling someone I had a mental illness.

My wife and I were having a discussion with a government employee, a government employee in a position of power, who can make decisions that have a huge impact on our family. Out of the blue, she asked what my disability was. Is that legal? I don't think so. We're looking into that.

Whether legal or not, it put me in a very uncomfortable position. It seems that I had three choices, and virtually no time to weigh the consequences of this decision. I could refuse to answer. That was my first thought, but then it would seem uncooperative and possibly affect her opinion of us and then her decisions. I could lie, and make something more socially acceptable up, but there are two problems with that. I would likely get caught in the lie at some point in the future, with unpleasant consequences. I would also feel ashamed of hiding something that I am normally open about, and which I feel is nothing to be embarrassed about. Cognitive dissonance. Third, I could tell the truth, and let her know that I was on disability for bipolar disorder, and let her think what she would. She's already made it clear that she does not approve of us or our decision making, this could well solidify that. Three choices, all bad. That's why this question is normally taboo.

What did I choose? Door three. I told her I had bipolar. We'll see where the chips fall. She's already made some decisions that hurt us badly, just one day after the disclosure. I may have made the wrong choice.

We're going to file a complaint of course. I'm not sure if that will cause more problems or not, but I'm pretty unhappy about this.

This isn't the first time that something like this happened. Last year I was working with vocational rehabilitation, looking for a job. They set me up with an interview for a job with a local branch of a very large corporation. The interview was going well, it looked like both the manager and the woman who would have been my supervisor were impressed. Then one of them asked why I hadn't worked for eight years, and would whatever kept me from working keep me from doing my job if I was offered it. Well, they had to know I had a disability, after all voc rehab had set up the interview. They knew better than to ask directly, but their question and they way they reacted to my initial response made me nervous, so I got flustered and let slip that I had bipolar. I knew better than to do this, but it just slipped out. The room got silent. The interviewers looked at me like I'd suddenly grown a second head. They couldn't believe what they'd just heard, and it was quite clear that even though we kept talking, the interview was over.

Recently I was reading an article about the worst companies in the US to work for. This company was listed as the worst. The expectations that they had for the employees and the way the employees were treated was just awful. Lots of stress and uncertainty. Unpaid off-the-clock work. Just the sort of thing that led me to disability in the first place. I doubt I would have lasted, so I think I'm glad I didn't get the job. But I'm still upset about what happened and the feelings that it raised in me.

What do you feel about the stigma of mental illness? Let us all know in the comments!

As usual, I'll post future updates to my Facebook and Twitter pages. Feel free to follow or friend or message me.


mental illness, mental health, bipolar, depression, mania, stigma, shame

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