I wanted to write this evening about something that has stuck in my mind for a long time. There were two incidences, several years apart, but they are very similar. They are both examples of stigma and how uninformed many people are about mental illness. Both occurred where I was working at the time, and both involved a discussion between co-workers (myself included). In each scenario several of my co-workers were talking about a regular customer, an acquaintance (more of mine than anyone’s). Each customer was a regular at each place I worked. Most of us had close to daily interactions with them, mind you they were the typical superficial interactions that a coffee shop regular would have with a seasoned barista. The customers were regular enough that we had plenty of time to observe each of them, their mannerisms and their perceived characteristics.
In the first workplace, I actually had a chance to sit and chat several times with the gentleman and I happened to really like him. I could see how he could come across different or even a little strange, but he was actually quite interesting and very nice. He was just really quiet and kept to himself. He always walked to and from the shop and dressed like someone who might live a simple, natural life in a cottage by a lake. I could see why they found him to appear out of place.
In the second workplace, I had never personally met the individual, but I was listening to the conversation of a couple of my co-workers and immediately got the impression that he was not a nice guy. He clearly had some issues and they seemed to find it quite acceptable to make it clear that he was screwed up and most certainly not a good person. He had major issues, in their opinions.
In both situations, the conversations drifted to an end with exactly the same conclusion. Not one that was based on any previous training or understanding of the “diagnosis”, mind you. Nevertheless, it was clear to them. The first pair, about a man that they had never actually spoken to, agreed that “Yeah, he’s bipolar. He creeps me out so much.” The second pair, the two that I was considering sharing that I have bipolar, quite simply stated, “I’m pretty sure he is like, bipolar or something.”
This sentence has silenced me for far too long. Those conversations still paralyse me.
These people had no idea what qualifies as bipolar disorder. They didn’t know that I was bipolar. I am quite certain that neither of those men were bipolar. Those two scenarios pop into my mind often. I have not come out about my bipolar disorder to many people, and it is situations like that that keep me silent. It is my impression that bipolar disorder is perceived to be an illness whose sufferers are plagued with unsavoury characters, that they are selfish, dangerous or miserable. They are strange and not to be trusted. That is my experience of how those who do not know anybody personally (that they know of) who has bipolar disorder perceive a person with bipolar disorder to be. It scares me frankly. It makes me worry that suddenly those who I have been close to will immediately question every moment that we have spent together, that they will suddenly see me as something else. Someone that is not safe, that needs to be kept at a distance. This is stigma. This is what it does and how it feels.
Sometimes I imagine what would happen if all of us with bipolar disorder were to come out and tell the world at the same time. At least there would be an accurate representation of what bipolar disorder looks like, acts like, is. They are people that they like, love and have known as friends for many years. That is what bipolar looks like. Just like the person they are sitting next to, sharing another story about the strange guy who just came in for coffee again.