Since my diagnosis of Bipolar in 2012, I’ve been open about it. Family and friends knew what I was struggling with from the very beginning. I’m glad I took this approach, it’s meant the people that are supportive and open minded have stayed in my life, and we have grown closer. People that couldn’t handle the idea that I had a serious mental illness left my life, and I’m happier for it. I’m blessed that I have so many people that care for me and want to understand my condition. Not everyone is as lucky as me, and have been shunned by family and close friends.
There is one thing that frustrates me though that I’m often told; that I’m brave. Brave that I speak out about my condition. Brave that I say things that are ugly and unpalatable. Brave that I never censor the struggles I face daily. I have never shied away from the label of Bipolar. It plays a major role in my life and I will never stop speaking out about it. I hate the idea that you have to be labelled as brave to speak out about mental illness. Would you call me brave if I broke my leg and asked you to sign my cast? Would I be brave if I used an asthma inhaler in front of a friend? Would I be brave if I started raising awareness of diabetes? No, because these are seen as acceptable, everyday injuries and illnesses.
I understand why people would say this to me. Bipolar and other associated conditions are not spoken about openly in society. You’re expected to hide mental illness because it’s the polite thing to do. It can’t be fixed as easily as a broken bone so people aren’t sure how to react towards you. They can’t see it so they struggle to relate and sympathise. When you’re asked “How are you?” and instead of replying “I’m fine” you reply “I’ve just come out of a manic episode and feel emotionally and physically exhausted.” people tend to freeze. They stumble over their words and try to change the subject to a lighter tone. Instead of being spoken about freely, people want it to be packaged up neatly away so it doesn’t interrupt their daily lives. It’s seen as a uncomfortable nuisance, and you’re an attention seeking distraction.
I don’t want to be brave for speaking out. I want mental illnesses to be normalised, to the point where a bad mental health day can be spoken about as easily as stubbing a toe is. I’m not ashamed for having Bipolar, but in our current climate more and more people are. The next time someone calls you brave, or you say this to someone else for speaking out, challenge them, challenge yourself; why exactly? It’s their or even your own preconception of mental illness that creates that reaction. Defy the stigma and root out the cause.