Bipolar disorder is “just a label”.
Not to me.
I know mental illness is culturally and personally complicated. A faction, a rather large vocal faction, don’t believe in the existence of mental illness. There’s another debate about this over at Mental Nurse. I stayed out of it.
It’s fair enough to hold your own opinion but to me, it’s insulting when people refer to bipolar disorder as a label. The same is true of schizophrenia, some people refer to it as a label, but, more often than not, there’s a little get out clause stating that “oh, but schizophrenia, that’s an illness” because it is more obviously destructive and indiscriminating than bipolar disorder. “Learned” types don’t make this distinction but the laymen do.
One of the problems is that bipolar disorder is seen as a middle-class illness. Its famous sufferers are by and large educated, artistic people. Schizophrenia, on the other hand, is an illness that is known for affecting people from working class backgrounds. Its very image is of the mad bag lady, or the unwashed black man gibbering on the bus. This is a stereotype, not from me but from society as a whole. Schizophrenia is the poor man’s disorder, and manic depression is the rich man’s disorder. Because manic depression tends to be publicised as an artistic disease, it’s easy to see it as a label that auguments this image, rather than an illness like schizophrenia.
I can see why some people prefer to see mental illness as a label.
Mental illness, particularly schizophrenia and personality disorders, come with stigma attached to it. The public’s perception of schizophrenia isn’t a sympathetic one. It’s wrongly associated with violence, and people fear those affected by schizophrenia.
Because of the stigma attached to mental illness, it’s better to see it as just a psychiatric label with no real meaning to the individual. Being “a schizophrenic” or being “a manic depressive” says something about you, something that might be seen as negative. Labels you can get rid of. Labels are interchangeable and unreal. The causes of mental illness are unknown, so maybe it isn’t worthy of being called illness at all, and sometimes diagnosis can vary from person to person. There’s no way of proving that somebody has a mental illness. A label that says, “Something is wrong with you” is insulting and unnecessary. Lots of people believe that psychiatric labels are just imposed on someone because society doesn’t know how to cope with them. In my own experiences, some people have considered me to be arrogant because I explained that I had manic depression. Implying that I have a real problem, and am not just a contrary, melodramatic woman.
I see this as real. As real as any other illness.
I think seeing mental illness as being as real as physical illnesses is the way forward in reducing stigma. A lot of people don’t agree with me, though. If mental illness is real, then your diagnosis does mean something. And you can be defined by it. And people are defined by mental illness, far moreso than they are by physical illnesses, because a mental illness lives in your control tower, pulling the switches that make you who you are. But if mental illness is real, then it’s not the fault of the person who has it. They didn’t do anything to make this happen to them.
But if people just dismiss mental illness as a label, it devalues those problems. It implies that any suffering the person is experiencing is not real. It’s all part of a disposable label. If someone kills themselves over a label, well, that’s just stupid. Mental illness can be treated. (Although the actual wanting to be treated for it is another problem altogether). And, although there’s no real scientific evidence of yet that shows that mental illness is hardwired into the brain, there are a lot of physical illness that cause symptoms of mental illness. Dementia, epilepsy, MS. So there is something in the mind that causes hallucinations and mania. People suffering from hallucinations that have been triggered by a physical cause aren’t fashioning coping methods, so why are people with mental illness supposedly doing just that?
I don’t think that I’d be “free” if I thought of manic depression as a label rather than an illness. I don’t think I’d be liberated from all that manic depression implies. This feels like an illness to me. It feels like an infection. It swept through my body eleven years ago, it weighed down my bones and dissolved its sickness through my body and mind. This feels absolutely physical to me. I don’t just become depressed sometimes and manic at others. It’s not an isolated syndrome. It affects everything and it is not a case of “letting it”, no more than a person with cancer can “let” their cancer destroy their body. My energy is affected by it. My perceptions and my abilities are affected by it. Days I can’t sleep, and days I can’t wake, and days I can barely walk more than a few yards, and days when my hands shake so badly that I can’t hold a cigarette, and ash is confetti. It isn’t “all in my head” because it’s not confined to my mind. It’s in my body, too.
There is a theory that people develop mental illness to cope with unbearable stresses in life. There is one illness in which I support this theory: Dissociative Identity Disorder, because, overwhelmingly in those who suffer from it, there has been a massively traumatic event that has happened to them, and I can see and understand why someone would want “alters” in order to escape, in order to cope.
I don’t believe that other mental illnesses are caused by stresses in life. Certainly worsened by them, as any human emotion is affected by the life around them. In my case, I’ve had those traumatic events. A lot of my life was a nightmare. But, in a way, I deal with that well, just like I’m good at dealing with emergencies, I get on with it, and I always have. Nothing “triggered” my first episode, the same way that nothing has triggered all my episodes since. And I did not just “become” manic depressive when I was twelve. I can see its roots stretched back as far as my childhood, which makes me believe even more so that this is just an illness that I was born with.
If mental illness is real, then the people who suffer from it are not just burdens on society who got there on their own volition by being fucked up and reckless. It just happened to them, like cancer happens to other people. Because a lot of people with mental illness drink and do drugs to cope with it, well, the image of mental illness is unfavourable because we’re all alcoholics and druggies, on the bottom rung of society. They didn’t do anything for this to happen to them. It’s not their fault.
If mental illness is real, it can be treated. Maybe one day cured. If I saw this as a label, a label that was destroying my life, not because I let it (believe me, I try, very hard, every single day, to not let it do anything), I’d have no hope. I probably wouldn’t have accepted the diagnosis in the first, probably wouldn’t be treated for it, probably wouldn’t have a CPN, probably would never have spoken to Rob about it, probably never would have started this blog, probably would have killed myself the second I left hospital.
I don’t believe in the “Big Pharma”. All huge businesses are corrupt, and a lot of people shouldn’t be on psychiatric medications. But some people should, and for some people, it does help. Of course, because it’s a label, psychosis, mania, depression, it’s all good, it’s all someone “experiencing” stuff. But those experiences can be so destructive. And sometimes, people need a drug to pull them out of the depths and heights of these experiences. It’s not coercion (although I do agree with detractors that in the past, “inconvenient” people were put into hospitals), there is a need for antipsychotics and hospitals to help stop someone ruining their lives, or taking their lives. Of course people should be allowed to, but it’s unlikely that once you help someone ease back into a more rational frame of mind that they’d want to.
Another thing is that being “ill” grants you a “victim” status that those who espouse the label theory don’t like. I’ve written before about the survivor/victim mentality so I’ll just let you read that instead.
And there is, of course, the language of mental illness. Words that you are not supposed to use, lest you be a “victim”:
- Mental illness, as opposed to mental disorder/mental distress/fantastic thing that makes me so unique
- “Suffering”. You’re not allowed to “suffer” from mental illness because if you do, you’re a victim
- “Medication can be helpful”, no, medication is EVIL.
I understand the reason people refer to mental illness as a label. But it is insulting to me. And it’s insulting to me when people comment here and tell me to take a bit more exercise and eat my greens and do a bit of yoga and I’ll be fine, as if I did this to myself by sitting around, did this to myself by not eating enough leafy vegetables. Over eleven years, I have done all the good stuff, done the exercise, got my vitamins, had a “positive attitude” and it didn’t help. I did not do this to myself. If I did this to myself, I would undo it to myself. Oh, yeah, and if you want to be in my bad books forever, do come here and tell me three things:
1) Pull yourself together, I did, it’s just a label, think positively, your diagnosis doesn’t mean anything, etc etc
2) DIET and EXERCISE? Oh, and YOGA and REIKI and other bollocks? It worked FOR ME. You don’t need ANY OTHER TREATMENT AT ALL. In fact if the above doesn’t work for you, YOU’RE WEAK, AND BEING CONTROLLED BY THE BIG PHARMA!
3) Your illness is an EXCUSE for you not to live a NORMAL LIFE because obviously due to your EXCUSE you must not ever tell anyone that you LOVE them or PLAY WITH YOUR KITTENS or ANYTHING since you spend ALL DAY just being MANIC DEPRESSIVE.
4) How dare you use the words SUFFERING and MENTAL ILLNESS. It is “MENTAL DISTRESS” and saying that people SUFFER from it makes it sound BAD.
For those people, I can use other words, like “fuck” and “off”.
The only thing that my illness is an “excuse” for is for my slurring my words occasionally on medication. I’m not defined by my illness, even if I don’t consider it a label. It’s part of me. Part. It does hold the reigns on my life, but hey, whatcanyoudoaboutit. Not much more than I am doing, really. I think therapeutic exercises like yoga and whatsit are important as supplements to actual medical treatment (indeed, I am getting a prescription to exercise to help my energy), but not the be-all, end-all. I don’t like to be made to feel like a failure just because I’m in psychiatric treatment, and just because, so far, I’m not better yet.
It doesn’t mean that I define myself as “manic depressive”. I don’t. I think of myself as someone with manic depression.
I still don’t feel very well so that may account for the tone of this post, and the fact that it doesn’t make that much sense. Although at least I managed to get out of bed before 4pm today.
Filed under: alcoholism, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, antipsychotics, articles, asylums, being mentally interesting, bipolar, Bipolar 1 Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, coping with manic depression, depression, diagnosis, diagnosis of bipolar, directionless ranting, gibbering, hallucinations, how manic depression can impact on your life, literature, living with mental illness, lunatic, mad pride, mania, manic depression, marcus brigstocke, medication, Mental health, mental hospitals, mental illness, mental patients, psychosis Tagged: | alcoholism, bipolar, Bipolar Disorder, depression, hallucinations, living with mental illness, mad pride, mania, manic depression, medication, Mental health, mental illness, psychosis