By Melissa D. Johnson
It’s always the same. I exit the parking garage, walk straight to the lab, hold out my arm, and surrender blood. The lab tech asks me how school’s going. I say “Fine.” She pulls the needle out, replaces it with a small but messy pile of gauze, and tops it off with a Scooby Doo band-aid. Which almost makes it worth the trip, especially if I happen to get Velma.
This time it’s different.
As blood fills the vial, the lab tech says, “So this is to check lithium levels—?”
No, no, no, no, no. This is not part of the routine. We are to pretend I am normal. Normal.
It’s no secret for a lab tech that a lithium blood test is almost always for someone being treated for bipolar disorder. A popular and effective drug in that regard, lithium can become toxic—even fatal—if too much builds up in the body. Which is why levels are checked on a periodic basis.
I address the question she’s really asking. “Yes, I’m bipolar. Lithium’s been a lifesaver. I’ve been stable for a few years now.”
“What’s it like—to be bipolar?” Her hands, a flurry of activity, suddenly become still.
Before I can answer, words pour out of her. “My niece just got diagnosed as bipolar. She’s fourteen. She and her mom—they don’t know what it is or what to do. They live in a small town in Tennessee. The whole town saw the things my niece did….”
Suddenly I’m not upset that I’m not being treated normally. Under these circumstances “normal”—or the fascade of “normal”—doesn’t help. Solidarity does.
Mental illness still carries an enormous stigma in society. Stigma is something that separates groups of people into “normals” from those who are not only “different,” but whose difference brings with it judgments of social and/or moral failings and disgrace.
As divisive as stigma is, it can also function as a source of connection and community. In Christian history, “stigma” (plural: “stigmata”) referred to bodily signs of holy grace—physical marks resembling the wounds of Jesus. It was by his wounds that Jesus was identified after his resurrection. These wounds were the means to form relationships, to bring solidarity, and to love.
Even if one is not a Christian, the idea of our wounds—our sufferings—being a way to form relationships and love instead of being a source of shame and disconnection, is a powerful one.
Bipolar disorder cannot be identified by physical marks. As a person who’s stable with medication, it’s easy for me to forgo the stigma of being mentally ill. I’m “normal” (except to pesky lab techs and doctors and such). But being content to stay “normal” doesn’t help people like this young girl. She needs to know she’s not alone. She needs to know she’s worthy of love. And she needs to see people own their illness publicly, without shame.
So I’m owning my stigma. Do you have one?