I was talking to a friend of mine The Muddled Mother (I hope I can call her a friend) online this week and we chatted about how our respective illnesses are going. She has been recently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) as well as recovering with post natal depression. I remember writing something about this time during my diagnosis journey and I realised today that we categorise mental illness severity. Like, we treat depression to be a less scary illness than bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia to be one of, if not the most severe. Where does this hierarchy of diagnoses come from? Is it a relic from our carers, namely the categorisation given by our doctors and support workers, or is it the public discourse (language) around them that gives them ‘special powers’ to be more destructive, or rather, seem more destructive.
I was being treated by a GP come colleague yesterday for my acute and sudden onset of pelvic dysfunction and I found myself wanting to tell them that the reason I seemed so ‘sleepy’ was not because I was relaxed on the floor of their apartment, resting on my back on the floor with my legs in the air in hope of restoring some of the juices to help my spine relax, but that it was more likely that I had just taken my medication only half-hour earlier and that the Olanzapine can make me sleepy. I felt an instinct to not say anything having told a doctor friend lately about my bipolar who had replied ‘yes, I can see why your doctors are fascinated by you. You don’t see many high functioning bipolar I patients’.
I felt like I was the sum of my illness in that moment. People ask me how I am going but then will also tack on ‘yes, but how is your bipolar going?’ I am tempted to respond that, ‘I haven’t asked it for a while, but I think the mania would be happy to answer if you’d give me just a moment.’ And follow this encounter with some crazy-like dancing on the spot and screaming ‘Let me out! Let me out!’
Society is stuffed when it comes to mental illness and it is no wonder that there are so many deaths by suicide for people with even ‘mild’ mental illness like depression. I should clear up at this point that I do not believe in these categories of severity, and know that depression is just as devastating to families and individuals as the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. More often though the stigma around these illness lends us to to not talk about them and afflictions that people can hide like anxiety and depression are in fact more dangerous as the public can just will their symptoms away. Well, they will them into believing that the illness is not really there. You know, the phrases like ‘just snap out of it’ or ‘chin up buddy’ are rarely heard when you have bipolar disorder. People are more likely to say to me, ‘oh no, I’m so sorry to hear that,’ followed by a nod, pat or some funky attempt to get out of the conversation. But they don’t try and wish it away like they would for depression or anxiety.
So this brings me back to my main point of labeling and categorising mental illness. We shouldn’t do it, but we do do it because it is human nature to normalise things. We want to find common, shared ground and mental illness gets in the way of that experience. It is like when we act so surprised when people in the public eye overdose or suicide, saying ‘but they seemed so fine; they were such a funny person’. Society finds it difficult to connect to the disabled and different… and I do too. I find it difficult to connect to myself as having bipolar disorder. Societal norms have infiltrated my being to such an extent that I will myself to not have bipolar in the workplace, in my social circles and in public, but this ultimately means that my family cops the brunt of my highs.
So how can we encourage the public to stop normalising our experiences and instead, embrace diversity and let us be who we are in the way we want to be?