Essay · Mental Health

Stigmas, Silence, and Schooling

After almost nine years, I still cannot get a clear sense of what happened during the months that followed my high school graduation. The diagnosis that has become a descriptor of my identity fogs up the lenses of self-retrospection. Concepts like failure, accomplishment, becoming well-adjusted, figuring out the next steps in life, getting knocked down and standing back up, forming lasting relationships – they are impossible to reflect upon. For three years I drifted untethered and rampant through my own and others’ days.

Cut to hospital interviews with lab-coated reporters. The show was over. Bizarre incidents I had no control over became criteria needed to put a name to my unsettled life. Habits I’d acquired during my early adulthood became symptoms. My personality needed explaining. A young, pseudo-science not more than a couple centuries old was going to determine my fate. That cigar-smoking, cokehead Austrian now had a posthumous presence in my life. How could I content myself for days with little interaction with another person at times and then thrive off of friends’ and strangers’ company for week-long, sleep-deprived stretches? The death obsession is the criteria I understand the most. It was a romantic affair; my brushes with self-inflicted termination are burned deep within my psyche. Funny how many times people use the phrase, “I’d rather kill myself” when describing petty unpleasantries. Funny how it never ceases to pinch a nerve in your gut when you hear it after you yourself have tried.

By the time I was finally diagnosed Bipolar I, I had recently finished my second semester of college. I was already a non-traditional student. Not only was I attending my third institution for higher education, but I would spend the time in-between classes forcing myself to sleep in my Jeep in the gravel parking lot where my morning commutes ended and my afternoon commutes began. I was a ghost on campus that first semester. A loner. I often imagined I was walking below the sidewalk wherever I went; my own nefarious tunnel system, free from intruding eyes and inquiring mouths. I would sit in silent coves in the library and transcribe my twisted thoughts into a composition book. The self-deprecating essays were all a reflection of the soft, dank cesspool that my mind had become. One entry lamented about how the atoms that make up the dirt over which people tread are often times neglected and if they could feel they probably would relate to how I felt. Another was the same hopeless sentence written 30 or 40 times, culminating in some short refrain about how the god I believed cannot exist because morning always came even when I’d lay myself down to sleep after praying I’d die before I wake. Those were the days of passive death wishing. Real emo shit.

The summer after that semester brought with it a dulled and hopeless realization that the gloom would not lift, not like it had the previous two years. Spring had not awoken my energetic spirit, its sunlight had not lit my smile. After enduring two more months of my long winter, I began getting serious about demolition. The fallout from that meant sifting through the rubble that my life had become and letting go of the fact that I could build myself back up on my own. That suicide attempt put me in the ICU. It also was the final nail in the coffin of diagnostic criteria. Boom. Bipolar I.

Same college. Three years later.

I was graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English and looking to move out of my town for a Masters degree. I was healthy, well, healthier than I had been when I enrolled there. My mission, which I’d chosen to accept, was to do what I liked best and had done the longest. I’d continue being a student. My plan was that the Master of Arts would be followed by becoming a Doctor of Philosophy and my life would be academic, routine, tweed-covered, and elbow-patched. When it came time to apply to graduate school, I was forced to open the cellar doors and gaze upon the murky shadows of my past. College applications naturally include personal statements. One the most honest personal aspects of my life, which especially reflected my character as an academic, was my struggle with mental illness. This certainly made me different. Graduating with my BA with honors from a respected university, having worked no less than two jobs throughout college, and having been diagnosed and learning to live with a mental illness? That was what made me stand out. Everything I had learned during those past three years from my family, doctors, peers, employers, professors, and myself told me to be proud of what I had accomplished. And I was. I defined myself by my perseverance. So in writing my statement of purpose I found a way to incorporate this information in what I thought to be a professional manner. I was brief and concise, mentioning my passion for learning and my draw to psychoanalytic literary theory as a result of my diagnosis and treatment.

Unadulterated honesty.

I had been working with one of my professors, the professor who initially inspired me to pursue academia, to write the essay. The first set of edits he returned to me addressed this piece of biographical information. “Omit the information,” he told me. “Academic institutions still think this a taboo subject. They probably will not knowingly accept you if you pose a risk of not finishing the program or performing at a competitive level. You don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot before it’s even in the door.”

Shot down.

Not to gloss over the rigorous task of applying to six schools for my MA and the glorifying feeling of being accepted to all but one of them, but that moment, reading that comment from a man I held in such high regard, that’s what stays with me. So does the last visit with my psychiatrist before I moved away for graduate school. I wanted logistical information about getting referred to a doctor in Boston. His response was that I should simply go through health services at my new university and they would be able to either take me or refer me to a doctor in the area. All seemed good and well, until I got home after the visit to hear a message that he had thought about it further and given the stigma surrounding mental illness, it would be in my best interest not to divulge that sensitive personal information, even to health services. If my professor’s notes hadn’t made it clear enough, I now saw the picture clearly. It was like the first two rules about mental illness were to keep your mouth shut if you were afflicted with mental illness. This is a disease, but it is not diabetes.

Here’s how those pieces of advice translated to me: “You have a serious, deadly illness. It nearly killed you. It has destroyed relationships and taken years away from you. Remarkably, you have learned how to live with this illness. You are still learning, but you have acquired the skills to understand how to navigate your life in spite of those aspects of yourself which are beyond your control. You have graduated from college. Congratulations. You have made the choice to continue your education. A noble and enriching life awaits. However, it is not for the faint of heart or the faint of head. You must not let anyone know about you. You have a weakness and unless you wish to fail, you must keep it hidden. You don’t want to fail, do you? You will if anyone knows how unstable you can be. If anyone finds out, it will follow you for the rest of your life. You want to be a professor, right? Well you’ll need a PhD. You won’t get into a program if you don’t get your Masters. You won’t get your Masters if you go telling everyone you’re a loose cannon. You can accomplish your goals, but you will never be able to be fully honest with anyone you work with. Not only will you carry the burden of Bipolar with you for the rest of your life, but you will carry it alone.”

And they wanted to protect me from a stigma? Professionals though they are, their unwillingness to accept the hypocrisy they’d dispensed via that advice has put a terrible taste in my mouth over the past two years. A life in academia is on hold, perhaps indefinitely. Oh right, I’d failed to mention that I have recently completed my MA and am happy to now say, after this bullshit vow of silence that nearly compromised my own core values and sense of self, I did it all while being bipolar. I do not doubt that it could have done it better, I could have made closer friends and formed more lasting memories had I been open about myself from the start, but I have learned that silence breeds unhealthy, ignorant silence for any party involved.

I have learned to recognize and accept the pebble drop that started the ripples in the still water of my mind. I also accept that my voice is necessary. If I continue to keep quiet, reserve my insight for myself, I might as well have never made it this far. I want others to make it, too. I am progressing. We all should be.

2 thoughts on “Stigmas, Silence, and Schooling

  1. You have quite a story to tell and a very vivid voice. If I were a prophet, I’d say you are going places. Oh hell, I’ll say it anyway. You are going places.

  2. I also have bipolar and am not ashamed of it. It’s sad that there’s more stigma surrounding mental illness in academic and professional realms than there is in the work-a-day world. There’s a lot of ignorance among the uneducated, but less judgement. They don’t fully understand it, don’t know much about it, but accept what you tell them, for the most part. I’m talking about people that you get to know. I dont’ tell just anyone right off the bat.

    I’m proud of you Dan! I was completely burned out after two years of community college. That’s because of the bipolar and I was also a loner. I had some physical issues too, but it was the suffering in silence that held me back. I’ve learned that you can’t keep hidden a very important aspect of your life and still have the fullest relationships with friends, collieagues and coworkers. I realized this because I’m gay and was closeted most of my life. It applies to the illness too. Since you’re holding back part of yourself, you end up holding back in many situations, many small ways that keep you from being who you are and becoming who and what you’re meant to be. Every joke not told, every feeling suppressed, every thought not expressed, and all the comments not spoken, add up to a supressed soul and an oppressed mind.

    May you find success, love and contentment in your life. Keep up the good work. You’re an incredible person! I miss working with you and hanging with you and Hannah at the Tavern!

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