About a year ago, I had the chance to attend a symposium hosted by Fountain House, a wonderful mental health charity. The honoree was Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, who spoke powerfully and unsentimentally about her experiences with bipolar disorder and the stigma she faced in going public with these struggles. (I recommend her memoir, An Unquiet Mind, to anyone.)
Dr. Jamison made one point that has really stuck with me. ”It’s only untreated people you see,” she pointed out. The “face” of mental illness is the schizophrenic man on the subway; the woman talking to herself on a street corner, the violent criminal. But here’s the thing: for every one of those people, there are probably a thousand living healthy, productive lives thanks to care and medication. The success rate is high. And yet, such is the stigma attached to mental illness that all these success stories will stay hidden and invisible, thereby perpetuating the fiction that mental illness is essentially untreatable.
Of course, there are degrees of illness, and I am not even going to get into the systemic problems with our health care. What I do want to talk about is the bravery of people like Dr. Jamison who, against the advice of colleagues, have gone public with their experiences. It’s only through people talking openly that these stigmas will begin to be erased - that we can realize how much medical technology has developed, and that there’s no shame in getting help or treatment.
My own struggles have been small by comparison, and my voice is a small one, but I too have dealt with the debilitating effects of manic-depression, and more to the point, the shame and sense of failure that went with it. But I am here to say that, thanks to good care and (yes) good drugs, I am happy, productive, well, and live a life filled with functional relationships and good friends. It makes some people uncomfortable to hear about such things, but I think it’s important.
Jamison quoted from her memoir in the talk I heard:
“I long ago abandoned the notion of a life without storms, or a world without dry and killing seasons. Life is too complicated, too constantly changing, to be anything but what it is. And I am, by nature, too mercurial to be anything but deeply wary of the grave unnaturalness involved in any attempt to exert too much control over essentially uncontrollable forces. There will always be propelling, disturbing elements, and they will be there until, as Lowell put it, the watch is taken from the wrist. It is, at the end of the day, the individual moments of restlessness, of bleakness, of strong persuasions and maddened enthusiasms, that inform one’s life, change the nature and direction of one’s work, and give final meaning and color to one’s loves and friendships.”