When the Stigma of Bipolar Disorder Starts with You

Bipolar disorder is an insidious illness which is invisible, but when I started creating the stigma, I knew it was going to be even harder to cope with this illness.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been forced to cope with my mental illness. I still do — no one has found a cure for bipolar disorder yet. During the crisis years, though, nobody knew anything was really wrong with me. I was experiencing a wild roller coaster ride of frightening highs and lows that put my life in jeopardy, but my disability was completely invisible.

Granted, I was behaving rather erratically, flying from New York to Tokyo to Paris on business three to four times a month, counterfeiting art and smuggling tens of thousands of dollars back into the United States. At the same time, I was drinking heavily and indulging in drugs and alcohol (self-medicating my mental illness), engaging in sex with complete strangers that I would meet in bars and clubs, staying up for days on end, and in general living on the edge. But my disability remained an invisible one to family, friends and colleagues.

Most people were convinced I was functioning just fine because I was efficient, productive, and successful. I had everybody fooled with my illness. While my bipolar disorder remained undiagnosed, I secretly wished that my disability would be a physical one, one which people would actually notice.  Maybe people would be supportive and help me if I had diabetes or, God forbid, cancer. Maybe I needed to show up to the next family function in a wheelchair to get somebody’s attention. I was helpless living with this invisible illness called bipolar disorder. And it certainly didn’t help that nobody around me have ever heard of my illness.

Once I was diagnosed, though, and given what I referred to as my “death sentence,” things changed quickly. And no, my family and friends did not come rushing to my side to support me in battling against my illness. Somehow I fantasized that this was going to happen. It never did and even when I “slip” today, it still never happens.

All of a sudden I realized the stigma of having a mental illness hit me smack between the eyes. And the stigma was almost as bad as having to come to terms with the fact that I was mentally ill and needed treatment. The stigma, I realize now, “started” with me. I initiated it. It was my own fault and a result of my own naiveté at age 28. When the doctor diagnosed me and used the terms “bipolar disorder” and “manic depression,” I really had no idea what he was talking about. “Manic” sounded like “maniac” and “bipolar” sounded like “polar bear,”  so I was completely confused.

I was under the impression that the illness was degenerative and that I probably wouldn’t live to see my next birthday. I asked the doctor how many other people there were like me and he told me about 2.5 million people in the United States alone.

He tried to calm me down and talk me through the diagnosis, but I was self-stigmatized by my new label. And then, of course, he had to remind me that I was now part of a category of people called “the mentally ill.”  Oh, God. I was a lunatic, a freak, a psycho, a crack-up, and a mental case.

When I left his office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and walked home across Central Park that snowy morning, I imagined being forced to have electroshock therapy like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I persuaded myself that I was overreacting, taking this too far. That could never happen to me. But actually, I wasn’t taking it too far. Less than three years later I found myself in the operating room of a psychiatric hospital in Manhattan, lying on a gurney with electrodes attached to my head and receiving electroshock treatments, 200 volts of electricity running through my brain.

The stigma first hit me from the “outside world” with a little help from the written prescription my doctor gave me. It was filled out for medications thought to control my bipolar. The prejudice began then. On seeing it, my own neighborhood pharmacist remarked, “Your doctor’s putting you on all of this medication? Are you okay?” I didn’t respond. I paid for my four prescription drugs and left the pharmacy wondering exactly what he meant by “all of this.”

Was I some sort of “mental case” because I was now taking four different medications? Did the pharmacist know something about my condition that I didn’t know? And did he have to say it in such a loud voice, just hours after my diagnosis? No, he didn’t. That was unkind. It seemed that even the pharmacist had an issue with mentally ill patients and trust me, mentally ill patients in Manhattan were the “bread and butter” of his business.

Next I had to tell people about the diagnosis. Scared to death, I waited a week until I got up the nerve to ask my parents to dinner. I took them for a meal at one of their favorite restaurants. They seemed suspicious. Did I have something to tell them? They automatically assumed I was in some sort of trouble. It was written over both of their faces. Assuring them that I wasn’t, but had some news that might surprise them, I just spilled the beans. “Mom, Dad, I’ve been diagnosed as bipolar by a psychiatrist,” I said. There was a long silence. It’s as if I’d told them that I had two months to live (interestingly, the same reaction that I had when my doctor told me).

They had a million questions: “Are you sure?” “Where did it come from?” “What’s going to happen to you?” Although they didn’t come out and say it, they seemed concerned that I was going to lose my mind. Oh, God. Their son had a mental illness. Was I going to end up living with them for the rest of their lives? And of course, they wanted to know if it was genetic. My telling them that it was didn’t exactly make for a pleasant conclusion to the dinner. Not only were they now faced with the stigma that their son had a mental illness, but the stigma that mental illness ran in the family.

With friends, it was easier to break the news. They seemed to know more about bipolar disorder and were supportive of my getting well and staying on a medication regimen. But all hell broke loose when medication didn’t manage my illness and I opted for the last resort, electroshock therapy (ECT).

My friends had a really mentally ill friend who had to be hospitalized and “shocked” to maintain an even keel. This was too much for some to handle, and those people simply disappeared. Nobody seemed to want a friend who was now officially a psychiatric patient and, after electroshock, a certifiable zombie.

In fact, everybody seemed frightened of me, including my neighbors, my landlord, and shopkeepers who I had known for years. They all looked at me funny and tried to avoid making eye contact with me. I, however, was extremely up-front with them. I told them all about my illness and was able to explain my symptoms as well as my treatment to them. “Have faith, one day I’m going to be just fine,” I seemed to cry out inside. “I’m still the same Andy. I’ve just slipped a bit.”

As there weren’t many who knew much about my mental illness, a lot of people had the attitude that I had the capability to “kick it” and get better instantly. This was the most frustrating attitude for me. My bipolar disorder was ravaging my life. But because nobody could see it, many people thought it was a figment of my imagination. Soon I started thinking this too. But when the symptoms, including the racing thoughts, hallucinations, and sleepless nights were out of control, the fact that I really was ill was reassuring.

The guilt I felt for having a mental illness was horrible. I prayed for a broken bone that would heal in six weeks. But that never happened. I was cursed with an illness that nobody could see and nobody knew much about. Therefore, the assumption was that it was all in my head, rendering me crazy and leaving me feeling hopeless that I’d never be able to “kick it.”

But soon, I decided to cope with my illness like it was a cancer eating away at me and I fought back. I dealt with it like it was any physical illness. I followed a medication regimen, as well as my doctor’s orders, and tried not to pay attention to others’ ignorant opinions about my illness. I fought it alone, one day at a time, and I eventually won the battle.

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Andy Behrman is the author of “Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania,” published by Random House. His book has been translated into eleven languages. He is a mental health advocate and speaker who promotes mental health awareness and suicide prevention, speaking to college audiences, mental health care professionals and local and national mental health support groups. His writing has appeared in “The New York Times Magazine,” “New York Magazine” and he is a frequent contributor to about.com/bipolar. He has appeared on Anderson Cooper 360, NPR Radio and on the cover of Bipolar Magazine. He was interviewed by Stephen Fry for his documentary, “Secret Life of a Manic Depressive” which aired on the BBC and he will appear in a documentary called “In His Own Mind,” a film which traces his illness over a period of decade directed and produced by Brian Cresto. ” He maintains a website at http://www.electroboy.com and can be found on Twitter @electroboyusa Andy lives in Los Angeles with his two daughters who are five and seven and never dreamed he would attend a Parent Association Meeting.

2 thoughts on “When the Stigma of Bipolar Disorder Starts with You

  1. I have known this amazing man for several years now. His ability to handle everything that life throws at him is certainly an inspiration to me, as I’m sure it is to anyone dealing with bipolar illness. It’s an honor to know him, and to share his journey.

  2. I found this piece incredibly comforting, brave and informative. Andy Behrman has done a service to people in the bipolar community with his willingness to share such intimate details about overcoming the stigma of mental illness. If you have not read his book, I suggest you run out and buy it now!

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