Most Wednesday evenings, I attend the Asheville Magnetic Minds chapter of the national Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. It’s a terrific group of people, great support, very stimulating – and often healing – conversations, and more good laughs than one might expect.
We start the evening by deciding on a topic to talk about. Tonight I said, “I’d like us to talk about labels. One of my friends who is steeped in the ‘Mental health recovery’ movement doesn’t like the subtitle of my blog. She says that calling myself a bipolar cashier is just a setup for stigma – for all the negative stereotypes that people associate with mental illness. She wants me to position myself as a complicated person with many strengths who happens to also have bipolar disorder. I think that really is the point of the blog, but it kind of sucks as a title. The writer in me is willing to play a little loose with mental health correctness and hope that people will read far enough to have their stereotypes exploded.”
We talked about variations of this topic for the next 90 minutes. Here are some highlights:
- The “Recovery model”, which has been imported from addictions recovery, falls down in at least one big way: you don’t get to have n days sober – you don’t divide your life into before and after you got clean. Mania and depression are states I continue to visit – and may for a long time, maybe forever.
- Stigma is alive and well – and there are risks connected with being “out” about a mental illness. I did a lot of thinking before deciding to have bipolar disorder be part of the content of a blog I would share with coworkers and customers.
- At least within the group, most people find terms like depression and bipolar disorder helpful shorthands, but maybe with some subtlety. In spite of my willingness to be provocative in my blog title, in the group I actually avoid calling myself a bipolar person. I typically introduce myself by saying that I’m living with bipolar disorder.
- Some people in the group mostly aspire to “cope with” or “manage” their illness.
- I said that I see our weekly group as basically a recovery group, where together we throw off victimhood and take charge of our own healing – partly by creating close relationships with each other. I see problems with the Recovery model, but find it more inspiring than just coping or managing.
- One of my friends who doesn’t like the Recovery model, but who I think has tremendous recovery, said “I don’t see why you would claim that saying you have bipolar disorder is a sign of stigma. I think it’s a badge of honor. Most people with bipolar disorder have gone through all kinds of hell and survived – and usually learned a lot in the process, stuff that the average person has never had to learn.”
- This got me all excited and brought me back to two elements of recovery that are important to me: 1) you create a big life, of which your illness is just one part (I think of my dancing, my cashiering and my writing) and 2) you embrace your illness as a path of healing. For me, bipolar disorder is a spiritual path – and what I learn about ups and downs is meant to be shared with others who have more regular ups and downs.