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An Alcoholic Bipolar Bear Reveals The Irony Of Reversible Stigma

Regular visitors to Funny In The Head know that it is a mental health humor blog. I rarely, if ever, reveal anything resembling a personal detail. As a long-term professional writer, I am very careful, and selective, about what I do and do not say. Like a spy, I know how to offer only the appearance of self-disclosure. As a mentally ill person moving incognito among “sane” citizens, one becomes a skillful actor.

Saying Goodbye to Shame and Stigma Around Mental Illness

However, I am temporarily discarding this policy. Shamelessness has been a wonderful byproduct of my recovery and there is little I am not willing to do in the battle against mental illness stigma.

When I began writing Invisible Driving (my bipolar memoir) in 1990, I realized there was no longer any room for privacy, anonymity, and secrets. Terrified, confused, and completely overwhelmed, I painstakingly recreated the bizarre and harrowing odyssey; thereby taking charge of my own healing. That, dear friends, was transformational.

The journey lasted many years; I worked hard. In diverse settings I received kindness, guidance, and wisdom from a wide spectrum of wonderful people. Triumph over fear and shame, acceptance of life as it is, celebration of self, and peace of mind, grew gradually through the incremental process of recovery.

So, a few facts about me. Male. White. Dad. Hetero. Highly educated. Posh lineage, famous father. Christian upbringing. Widely traveled. Diverse, prestigious work history. In other words, I began life at the very top of the food chain and learned early that – when everything is designed to fit you, and society itself is doing backflips to please you, it is easy to succeed.

Worse, it is easy to believe you did it yourself. Worse still, it is easy to believe you are entitled to it – simply because you are a white male straight Christian who went to a good school, drives a nice car and looks good in Madras. When the world is beneath you, everybody carries just a whiff of stigma, and the mentally ill are at the very bottom of the heap.

Mental Illness Was A Sobering Experience

But life beat me down, way down, all the way down to the streets, the prisons and of course, the madhouses. There is no lonely like the lonely of a madhouse. Everything was taken from me and I had to rebuild from zero many times. It was a process that might have killed me, but instead, it made me. Today, I live a life beyond my wildest dreams; I am the only person I envy. (Ed. note: Listen to Alistair talk more about his life with mental illness on the HealthyPlace Mental Health Radio Show.)

Madness took me places most folks could not spell, much less imagine. I had every stupid scrap of entitlement, superiority, and prejudice ripped away – I was reeducated in the realities of life, of being a moral person, of daring to be the very best me, the me that finds joy in contributing to this world without the expectation of benefit. Of all the unexpected blessings of life, ironically it was mental illness that gave me most.

At this point, I regard the attempt to stigmatize as a public admission of fear, insecurity, and unapologetic idiocy – like a self-administered learning disability. (We fear what we do not understand, and, to be fair to the apple pie crowd, insanity really is hard to fathom when viewed from the outside. Of course, that’s why I wrote Invisible Driving – to give a name to the unknowable.)

My problem today is an intense desire to stigmatize those who actually believe they are superior to people suffering from an illness. This cruel illusion is revolting and ludicrous; almost like believing one person is better than another because of their skin color. I mean, can you imagine?

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14 Responses to An Alcoholic Bipolar Bear Reveals The Irony Of Reversible Stigma

  1. cindyaka says:

    Wow, you’ve had quite a ride. I will definitely look for your book at the library. I am concerned with stigma and how it will effect my work. I’m currently an unemployed teacher and will need to explain why I was away from teaching for so long. Somehow I don’t think telling them I have bipolar will get me very far. I’d like to think that people are better about stigmatizing others,that their prejudice will lessen and that they are willing to change. Maybe it’s unrealistic to think that way, but I think there’s hope out there still.

  2. Thanks for writing. Every situation carries its own challenges, you must judge what to reveal, and when. You are under no obligation to say more than what is ethically mandatory – and best for you. I will say this. People are often not as stupid as one imagines – they can see gaps in a resume and put 2 and 2 together. Also, people are often not as wretched as one imagines they will be. If you are honest with them, if you give them an opportunity to learn, grow, and do the right thing – they often rise to the occasion. At some point the stigma must end. One way to end it is by being the first to take a chance. When you show them that YOU do not fear your illness, you encourage them to drop THEIR fear of it. Best of luck.- p.s. You won’t find Invisible Driving in the library, but you will find it on Amazon.

  3. Pingback: Mental Health Month Blog Party 2012 – Round Up | Your Mind Your Body

  4. maria cosgrove says:

    Thank you, you have put into words what I try to explain to people. I to lost everything and lived in a very dark place for years, but, I wouldnt change it. I have learnt so much about life, myself and our narrowminded society. I talk about my experiences openly and try to help others understand “a mental health condition” of course until you walk in those shoes how could you get it?

  5. Pingback: Recovery Peer Specialists CRPS » Blog Archive » I’m Blogging About Bloggers Who Blogged Today For Mental Health And the APA Blog Party

  6. Hello Maria: Thanks for these lovely words; you’ve touched me more than you know. — Recovery has caused me to understand that we are all in this together and if we cannot help one another then – well – we shall surely all hang separately. — It is hard for “normal” people to understand our world; we must become teachers. I salute you. Alistair

  7. Kellie Holly says:

    Thank you for this. You have every reason to be courageous and no reasons to hide who you are, were, and have yet to become. I think that’s the most wonderful thing about this life, that we can continuously evolve into who we want to be!

  8. Thanks for reading, and writing, Kellie. I appreciate the sentiment and love your emphasis on the future. Indeed, if you play this thing right, you never stop learning and evolving. Cheers, Alistair

  9. Cate says:

    This is great. And an excellent idea to reverse the stigma onto the unfortunate ‘normal’ ones. I wish I had thought of that. LOL. I might just borrow it anyway. Thanks. :-)

  10. So glad you enjoyed it. Please feel free to use the idea whenever you like. I assure you it is genuine. After my trip through the mill it did really become harder and harder to look at clueless “Wonderbread” types without feeling a combination of contempt and pity.

  11. jill says:

    Thank you, Alister for your insight. I am an academic at a small University in the Southern United States. I currently struggle with a loved one who suffers from bi-polar disorder, and it is destroying our ten year relationship. While I try to be a loving, encouraging, and non-judgemental partner, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot change things alone, and trying to has worn me to frazzles and left me emotionally and physically broken at times. Progress has to be a joint effort. I have told my loved one that is is OK to be who you are, but you can’t just run around doing so at the expense of others. I am going to look in the local library for your book, and I am excited to see what you have to say about bipolar disorder and relationships. Thanks again.
    Jill, MS

  12. jill says:

    Just reaized it is on Amazon,
    not in the library, Thanks

  13. Thanks for your interest. Invisible Driving is available from various sources (paperback and e-book) but I recommend Amazon.

  14. Hello Jill: Thank you for writing, and sharing your story. You are so right about the limitations of what you can do. We might agree that “recovery begins at home” and not much happens until the person with the problem takes ownership of dealing with it. Your first duty is to yourself – protect yourself. Bipolar disorder is serious – it does respond to treatment very well – but without treatment it is destructive and sometimes dangerous. Invisible Driving is a memoir, a personal narrative exploring my experience with the illness, and recovery. But you will find that it is only one of many books on the subject, some of which take a very “hands-on” – practical approach you will find useful. And there is plenty of great advice to be had right here on HealthyPlace – I hope you will explore the site. We are all fortunate that there are so many resources today, it didn’t used to be like that! Best of luck. Alistair

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