In my Facebook feed today, a friend innocently used the word “bipolar” to refer to God — specifically the erratic, capricious, and vengeful God worshipped by fundamentalist Christians. She meant no harm, and when I spoke up, she immediately recognized what she had said, and apologized. I was not offended so much as saddened.
I was saddened because I know that almost all the people reading would know what she was aiming at. I was saddened because that’s what “bipolar” means in this society: fickle, changeable, unpredictable, acting out, swinging wildly from one personality to another. More than once I have seen people write “I’ve been so bipolar this week,” when they mean that their life has been all over the place.
The same with “schizophrenic.” People use it as a casual insult about others they view as unreliable and untrustworthy.
These words, these uses, have been internalized by all of us, myself included. But “bipolar” and “schizophrenic” are medical terms. How do you think the casual usage affects how we view people with those disorders? Among other things, people think they know what a particular diagnosis entails, when they could not be more wrong.
Being bipolar does not in and of itself mean being impulsive and changeable, even if those attributes might be a symptom of the disorder for some people.
Schizophrenic does not mean acting like two people.
Depression — clinical depression — is not merely sadness.
Bipolar disorder is slowly being understood more and more by the public, in large part because of celebrities who speak out their own disability. (God bless you and keep you, Carrie Fisher. I would say the same thing to you Stephen Fry, except I understand that you’re an atheist. So I’ll just say thank you.)
Schizophrenia, though…. People fear schizophrenics: “paranoid schizophrenia” seems to be the diagnosis of choice of fictional detectives dealing with serial killers. But there are law school professors with schizophrenia (just as there are medical school professors with bipolar disorder). The condition does not have to be debilitating if managed. Efforts to combat stigma are even more important with schizophrenia than with bipolar disorder and depression.
Having a mental illness makes it harder to find employment, even though employment helps keep us functional. Telling employers of your disability is often a kiss of death for job prospects until after you have been hired, when you tell them you may need accommodations. Thank God for the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Although I am outspoken about my disability here, or in non-employment contexts, I usually do not tell a potential or actual employer (or coworker) about my bipolar disorder until necessary.* I’m not alone: a few years ago I told a coworker (and friend) I had bipolar disorder. There was a silence, followed by “So do I.” I had been working with this man for two years at that point.)
These are serious illnesses. The more we stigmatize them the more likely it is that people who need help will refuse to get it. And bipolar disorder and major depression are often terminal if left untreated.
I have been told by some of my friends and all of my medical professionals that I am “brave” for being outspoken about my bipolar order. Wrong. All I am doing is trying to put a human face on something that all too often is hidden, except to show up when some person with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia commits an act of violence, either in real life or on Criminal Minds. (Far more violence is committed by people who are not mentally ill. And as I have often pointed out before, people who are mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.) My role models are that generation of lesbians and gay men who spoke out — who are still speaking out — to insist on being recognized as fully human and having the same rights as everyone else.
I’m not brave. I’m just fed up.
*If they Google me, and find this blog, they’ll know, but that’s a risk I am more than willing to take. If they don’t want to hire me because of what I write here, I might not feel comfortable working for them anyway.