There’s not a lot that scares me. Capturing spiders is my job at our house and I don’t kill them. I very calmly catch them up in a tissue and take them to the nearest exit, where I shake out the tissue and wish them well. I’m not afraid of the dark either. And when I was a little girl, I would watch horror movies with my older sister. While she buried her head until the scary parts passed, I reassured her that the monsters were on TV so, therefore, couldn’t get us. And clowns? Please!
One thing I am afraid of is the stigma that surrounds mental illness.
When I started talking openly about being bipolar, it never occurred to me that it would be anything but a positive move. Just weeks into revealing my mental condition outside my family circle, my optimistic attitude started to feel a little myopic. A friend cautioned me about eating a fun-sized chocolate bar, afraid the sugar would trigger a depression. She acted out of kindness, as I had recently told her I was susceptible to the sugar blues. I assured her a little bit of chocolate wouldn’t send me into a tailspin.
It was a coworker, though, who most opened my eyes about the reality of living outside the mental illness closet when she said “Wow! You’d never know to look at you.” As if you can tell by looking at someone that they have diabetes, Crohn’s disease, asthma, Addison’s disease or any of a number of chronic illnesses.
I used to think I had no idea what she thought a person with bipolar disorder looked like. But I do. She thought the mentally ill look something like this:
I’ve been around mental illness all of my life. Like many with bipolar disorder, I have the genes to thank for it. There was diagnosed alcoholism and schizophrenia, but also evidence of depression, anxiety, panic, PTSD. You name it; I’ve probably been exposed to it. So, I know that the mentally ill look just like me.
Lately, even that’s become a problem. Any time a horrific event takes place—say a school shooting—the first question after “Why?” is “Was he mentally ill?” Hell, it may even be the first question. Again and again, I read about people who “seemed so quiet” and “wouldn’t harm a fly” that just suddenly go berserk and shoot up whoever happens to be in their way.
No one knows who’s crazy anymore and that’s got people scared. So scared, in fact, that when the NRA talks about putting together a list of the dangerously mentally ill, it gets considered seriously enough that reasonable people have to point out how insane it is.
Halloween is when America’s ignorance about mental illness is most evident. Every year—that’s every year—the National Alliance on Mental Illness sends out a press release detailing how the current season’s costumes and entertainment perpetuate stereotypes. At the Spirit Halloween website, you’ve got your pick of six costumes featuring strait jackets. The most popular appears to be “Insane Jane,” a psycho slut in restraints right out of a B&D fantasy porn. She’s followed by the “Sexy Silence of the Lambs” costume. (I’m having trouble figuring out the erotic appeal of cannibalism, bad puns and innuendo aside.) If you were thinking it’s a good year for Junior to get his crazy on, you’re out of luck. Spirit’s sold out of the child’s size Hannibal Lector suit. Why the thing is so popular is beyond me. It’s kind of hard to hold your treat bucket with your hands buckled behind your back.
“Haunted Houses” are stigma factories. In Indiana, visit The Asylum House, where you can learn all about “Alice in Psycholand.” Or, head on over to Allentown, PA, for Psychopath Sanctuary. Promos for the attraction note that:
Several mental patients have escaped the state hospital. They are rumored to be hiding in an abandoned barn. Local residents have been reported missing. Neighbors of the barn have heard strange noises near the barn and believe people are being tortured there.
If you’re south of the Mason Dixon line, be sure to check out the Insanitarium in Alabama. It looks crazy fun, if the website can be trusted.
My mental illness genie is out of its bottle. But with one in four American’s experiencing some mental illness every year, it’s pretty clear to me that most of the mentally ill aren’t anywhere near pulling the cork on opening up about their own struggles and triumphs. And who could blame them?
In Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote, of Halloween,
I’ll get through Halloween, but next year, just maybe, I’ll trick or treat myself. I’ll go as an insensitive jackass. I’ll probably look something like this:
I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never looked at Halloween like this before. I guess I’ve always thought of it as “those kind of crazy people” versus “my kind of crazy”. My sister has schizophrenia but it never occurred to me that these stereotypes are harmful. It’s not much different from people seeing alcoholics as sloppy drunks when most look more like me. Great post and a lot to think about.
Thanks. My uncle was schizophrenic, so my vision of schizophrenics is him sitting in the lounge at the state hospital with his hands shaking from the anti-psychotics he was on. My dad was a happy drunk. Never sloppy, never missed work. I’m thankful for that.
When I started blogging about my anxiety publicly, it got uncomfortable real quick. Mostly with the people that knew me, but weren’t close to me. But, ultimately, I still feel it was a good choice to be true to who I am and blog about my real feelings.
Agreed. I am still having difficulty explaining myself to some who are very close, but making some headway. Helps that the more I open up about it, the more that person learns about it on their own.
This post made me think. As a therapist, we develop a very dark sense of humor amongst ourselves and I realize we walk a fine line because we also care deeply about our clients and would do almost anything for them.
And add in my love for Halloween…I’m going to think twice about those types of costumes now.
It’s difficult to know how to respond to these things. My son, who has long hair and a beard and is constantly told he looks like Jesus, went to a Halloween party dressed as Jesus. I can’t make up my mind if I should have said “No” or if it’s ok. He’s not wearing a crown of thorns or carrying a cross. He’s more then give me a candy corn and a snickers bar and I can feed the trick or treating masses Jesus. But, offense is in the eye of the beholder. I, obviously, think it’s ok to call myself crazy.
Glad to make people think ’cause the topic made me think, too. BTW, my daughter went as a mouse. I’m sure there are all kinds of arguments we could make about how she should be something strong and vocal, but she looks darn cute with her little mouse nose.
I think dealing with mental illness by using humor is totally ok, but there is a fine line between humor and offensiveness.
And you’re right – offense is in the eye of the beholder.
I will share a halloween decoration that sort of brings your story home. I used to work with mentally ill adults out in the community. This is a small “city” that is plagued with low employment, low education and high rates of addiction. There was a VERY high rate of mental illness. Someone decided to hang a dummy with a noose from a tree branch. When I called them (thank you Google…no one can hide) to hopefully reassure myself really that this was just an oversight in common sense, I was told I was over reacting and not in a very nice tone. They thought it was really funny. No thought about the mom who will drive by, see this and be thrown back into the worst day of her life…the day she found her son hanging in his bedroom. This mom lived in this community…I knew her.
So yeah, have fun with this holiday but today and every day PLEASE choose your humor humanely.
BTW…brittney looks about 50 shades of crazy in that picture! Great choice. Lol
I’m speechless. I can’t believe someone could possibly think that hanging a body is, in any way, appropriate.
I would avoid driving by their house, especially when I had clients in my car, which was tough because the house was on a very popular street. In hindsight, I wish I would have been more vocal about it.
One,…love the new header!!! Two, great post. I will admit, as someone addicted to scary movies and such, I totally buy into the whole abandoned mental hospital thing. Hell, last season of American Horror Story took place in an asylum and I ate it up. I love how you totally made me look at all of that in a different way. You are a true advocate, my dear.