Self-Stigma: The Real Enemy
I let the diagnosis become who I was. I blamed myself for everything that was wrong in my marriage. I thought I had no right to live. Or work. Or have a child. Or even ask for a separation.
In responding to a post of mine from last week, Donna identified a very important and little-discussed issue - self-stigma. She went on to say that she became as much a part of the problem of her bad marriage as her controlling husband, not knowing how to lift herself up and out of it.
Boy, did Donna's comments ever resonate with me. Even when I was in denial about my illness, years before I was diagnosed, I was beating myself up, deeming myself unworthy of even the simple things in life that others take for granted. My diagnosis only confirmed my lack of worth. I was one of the crazy ones, the misfits. I would always be the outsider looking in.
Even long after I clawed my way back, I over-identified with my label. Part of it couldn't be helped. My new livelihood, after all, was based on researching and writing about my illness. But I could have found other social activities outside of support groups. I could have dated women who thought bipolar had something to do with gender identity in bears.
Don't get me wrong. I needed to discuss my diagnosis with people who share my diagnosis. But the longer that my illness remained the focal point of my life and identity the longer I managed to regard myself as somehow incomplete. Trust me, the stigma inflicted upon our population by the outside world is nowhere near as bad as what we do to ourselves. In many ways, we're like that circus elephant with the one leg shackle attached to a flimsy stake in the ground, a prisoner of its own self-limiting thoughts.
Our rates of unemployment/disability are as depressing as any third-world economy. Our lack of success in loving relationships would have people believing we are carriers of a form of bubonic plague. Yes, our illness poses a major challenge, and I am brutally reminded of that fact every time I start to think my life is going right. But still, I cannot help but wonder - how much of our misfortune can be attributed to our illness and how much to our own crippling self-stigma?
I don't have a ready answer. I badly need your wisdom and insight on this. In the meantime, the last word goes to Donna:
Those of you reading this - please do not take on the character of your illness as your identity. Get help. All the help you can get, any way you can get it. ... Even a small amount of courage can get you going again. Just make the effort. One step away from mental illness is one step toward mental health.