Walking Wounded: Betrayal and Stigma

Even a few days later, I’m still stung and hurting.

A (former) friend whom I have known for years started a Facebook instant message conversation, and asked me what I’m up to.  I said, I’m up to my ears writing a novel, authoring two blogs of my own, participating in a group blog (A Canvas Of The Minds), and guest blogging for others on mental-health related topics, specifically bipolar disorder.

She comes back, bipolar disorder?  Are you bipolar?

Yes.

Are you on meds?

Yes.

Were you on meds when you lived here (with her family for three months, six years ago, while apartment hunting)?

Yes.

Huh.  Well, good luck then.

Click.

A Shrike Impales its Dinner

A Shrike Impales its Dinner

I should have just walked away from it, counted the loss of another person I had thought was my friend, but I felt like I would be betraying myself, as a campaigner for mental health parity and erasing stigma, if I just let it be.  So I sent her a couple of private emails to see if we could sort it out.  No deal.  Door closed.

The pang of that injury took me back to my very first attempt to disclose my private battles with mental illness.  I was at an American Academy of Pediatrics conference.  I am a lifetime elected fellow of that venerable organization.  The conferences are huge, held in gigantic conference centers or spread across multiple hotels.  EVERYONE is there.  So I am navigating a crowded lobby, and I run into an old mentor of mine from my residency.  We had been quite close, and she had always been a shining light for me.  How have you been, she asks kindly.  Well, I return, if you want to know the truth, I’ve been struggling with depression.  She turns on her heel and walks away.  I watch her back receding into the crowd, burning up with shame and racked with the chill of fear: what have I become, that friends and colleagues and teachers just turn and walk away as if I were a leper ringing a bell and calling out, “Impure, impure”?

Years later, I became very close with a neighbor on our street who was also a physician, and like me, an herbalist and energy healer.  We felt a deep kinship and hung around whenever we weren’t at work.  Our kids played together, our husbands liked each other.  It was relaxed and fun and warm.

Even more years later, I had moved away and decided to add acupuncture to my medical toolbox, so I enrolled in an acupuncture school.  First day there, who shows up, but my dear neighbor from before!  We were so thrilled to be on parallel paths.  She and her husband had also moved to the state where I now lived, and she had also enrolled in the acupuncture course!  We switched rooms so we could be roommates; back home we started a seminar group for physician acupuncturists in the area; we stayed close.

Then I had my breakdown.  I won’t go into the details here.  It’s enough to say that I was immobilized by depression, catatonically immobilized, and had to be transported to hospital where I stayed for a couple of weeks.  There was talk of ECT, which I adamantly refused.  I got better enough to discharge; or actually, my insurance ran out and they decided I was better enough to discharge.  I spent the next year completely incapacitated on the wrong meds and racked with guilt over losing my medical practice and putting my two employees out of work, and anything else I could find or manufacture to feel guilty about.

The phone rang one day and I idly picked it up: I wasn’t answering the phone that much in those days.  Why bother?  Who cared?

“Hello?” an eager voice greeted me.  It was my friend the acupuncturist-herbalist-physician!  I was so glad to hear her voice.

“Hi, D_,” I managed, trying to sound chipper.

“Well, what’s the matter?  I’ve been calling and calling you but you never answer and haven’t returned my messages!”  D_ could be fiery.

“Well, D_, the problem is I’ve been struggling with depression.”

“Oh.” (beat) “Good luck then.” Click.

I guess that was probably therapeutic in its way, because ever since I’d gone into catatonia I had not been able to cry.  When D_ snubbed me because I was sick, I fell on the floor convulsed with sobs.  I screamed, I howled, I kicked things, I looked around for something I could afford to break but found nothing so I screamed some more.  I felt more betrayed at that moment than I did when I found out my husband had been cheating on me.  Husbands are one thing; bosom friends are another, and being betrayed because of who I am, and the fact that I was ill, by a fellow doctor whom I loved, was just too much.

So when last week brought me another dose of betrayal, I had a flashback to the last time I was dismissed due to my illness.  It is enough to be one of the walking wounded warriors, without having to endure the betrayal of stigma.

I bless us all, and bless me back, that our friends should be loyal and true friends, as loyal and true as the biblical Jonathan and David, who watched each other’s backs and took care of each other through all the ups and downs of life, loyal till death.

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40 Comments

  1. Your post stirs in me a variety of emotions, all intense. I feel anger, righteous anger at your (and my) experiences of being left/betrayed/abused again by those we felt safe enough to be intimate and close with. I feel pain, pain for how you (and me and everyone else with mental illness) has suffered unfairly, from initial abuses, to suffering from a disease, to being left by friends and family for having a disease. I feel pride, and strength also tho, from your post. Because despite it all, all the extra that we suffer from the disease itself and from the stigma those close to us display, you survive; you (and maybe then all of us?) and you get back up and you carry on and move forward. Without this life, without this illness, without this stigma, none of us would be as strong, as proud, as able to continue to grow.

    Reply
    • What a wonderful comment, I’m pleased and humbled by your passion and eloquence. This is one comment I will refer to times when I feel like I’m slipping.

      Reply
  2. I know where you are coming from with that , I too get it from home though. I have always been honest about my health and people smile and nod and look sympathetic, but when I need them they fade away. My wife too does this, she cannot handle it at all, she went to a help group(my suggestion) and stayed til the coffee break and never went back some 4 years ago, we are married 3 years.. I am home all day with the kids and struggle at times, but nobody sees this. Meds to me , are too expensive, I even went back to college to improve employment chances and all I do is volunteer. now. Some days good, some days bad!

    Reply
    • I’m so sorry to hear that. You’re in the UK, right? Aren’t meds covered by NHS?
      Good that you’re volunteering. I haven’t made it that far. Have you been able to get your wife to come to counseling with you?

      Reply
      • Am in Ireland, no cover here!! I have no chance with getting the wife to come there, its a pity as our life would be much better if she did.Thanks.

        Reply
      • In Ireland and dont qualify!! Wife has an elephant in the room.

        Reply
  3. It baffles me how people can behave like that. I would never do that and also I would be a hypocrite if I did :p

    Reply
    • It especially baffles me because this person is so ADHD it took everything I had, when I was living with her, not to run screaming out into the wilderness. But maybe that’s the root of the problem: People see themselves and are terrified to think, “what if I might have it too?” And then they lash out. And that’s because they ARE hypocrites, unlike you!

      Reply
      • I find everyone also seems to think their experience is more genuine. They have more of an understanding of themselves and everyone else is just weird. That the problems I usually ran into.

        Reply
  4. Hmmm, now that you bring this up, I do think there must be some element of self-centeredness/narcissism that makes it impossible for some people to have empathy. On the other hand, there’s the “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps/snap out of it” people whom I would like to bestow with my brain for a week and see if they didn’t run screaming into the wilderness!

    Reply
  5. I am stunned. Bad enough that “friends” would react thus, but other caregivers? Has anyone looked into their patient relations?
    You know I love you, and would never respond in such a bewildering way.

    Reply
  6. Your post strikes a chord with me once again. While I have not suffered the series of blows you describe I am all too familiar with people’s withdrawal once they know. One of the ways I try to communicate about mental health issues, and try to make it a less frightning topic, is through my blog. This week’s offering tackles what to say to someone you know has mental health problems.I thought you might be interested.
    http://www.puncturerepairkit.wordpress.com

    Reply
    • I did go and see your post, and left you a comment there. I must say I’m very gun-shy about talking about my mental illness, because of the intense negative reactions I’ve had from people. I just don’t want to deal with it. I want to stay under my nice safe rock and not talk to people unless I know they’re safe.

      Reply
  7. The problem is, Bessie, that doctors are trained to be “super-humans,” meaning “above-being-human.” When I was in training we worked 120 hours a week. Complaining was seen as weakness; if we got sick, we worked anyway, because otherwise we would just be making someone else work harder. I used to joke in my mind that if I died they wouldn’t give me time off to go to my own funeral. It’s a hazing that lasts three years, and if you survive it you are toughened and you have no compassion for others of your kind. Patients are different. It’s like being a veterinarian: the patients are of a different species, so you have compassion for them. But as I’m sure you have experienced, the words “doctor” and “caregiver” often don’t marry up. Sad but true. And mental illness threatens people, because of their fear of their own craziness. Other people can be crazy, but not them. So when someone on their own level admits to mental illness, they run the other way. Very sad, very hurtful. I know you love me, and we love each other, so we have no such worries! We love and accept each other complete with our craziness. It’s part of who we are. Not all; but part.

    Reply
  8. WTF? Why would anyone react that way to someone who struggles with mental illness!? That’s just…gah, there are so many levels of wrongness inherent in that, my brain can barely comprehend them. I am so sorry you had to go through this even once, much less several times. It truly boggles my mind that anyone could be so cold.

    Reply
    • Thank you, I appreciate your support. Those truly were “WTF” moments, except I was too hurt to say so. The recent outbreaks of violence committed by people who are assumed to be mentally ill (although not one was diagnosed, on meds, etc.) have done tremendous harm to people who ARE mentally ill. I think this last lady was probably thinking “OMG, I had a potential mass murderer in my house with my children and I didn’t even know it???” Rather than the positive response I would have liked, which was, “Wow, you seem entirely normal,” which still would make me want to kick someone in the shins, I got the…you know.

      Reply
      • That’s so sad. I guess in my naivete, I never expected people to actually believe the news stories. To me, news is half-wrong at best, and making everything up as they go at worst, so I always take what they say with a huge grain of salt. I guess I also assumed that people would know better than to assume that mentally ill = violent and dangerous. I am so sorry that the people in your life failed on both counts. I can’t even imagine how difficult that was. 😦

        Reply
  9. Can’t say much about this. I share my illness with very few people for fear of the same treatment. I don’t believe it is right that I am that way, but there is some self-preservation in there, because I fear the injury that could be caused in similar circumstances to what you described.

    So hard to find a Jonathon or David!

    Reply
    • I am totally behind you in this. If there is no reason to disclose, why should you? I feel these things are on a “need-to-know” basis: and most people don’t need to know. I only disclose to people I either feel need to know, like my internal medicine doctor, or to very good friends, which occasionally blows up in my face like this one did. And that proves that she wasn’t a very good friend, otherwise she would have reacted differently.

      Reply
  10. Hey, SS! Mind if I ping-back this post? Loved it! Stop making me think! LOL 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you, I’m honored. Ping away, and don’t count on me to stop making you think…I can’t stop myself, that’s why I write all this silly stuff 😀

      Reply
  11. I can relate about rejection but now I keep to myself.

    Reply
    • Right. That’s what happens, if we get rejected enough: we isolate ourselves, so that we don’t get hurt anymore. Long ago I found the pain of loneliness to be preferable to the pain of treachery. Occasionally I forget, and get slammed again. After that, seclusion feels warm and welcoming.

      Reply
  12. I don’t know if I’ve been rejected because of my illness; anyone who has is no longer in my life and never said anything about why. But, I do have plenty of people who don’t understand that I don’t have “normal” emotions. When I’m down, I can’t just pick myself up. When I’m high, it isn’t necessarily a good thing. I struggle with that. I will say that I am often anxious that discovery of my bipolar disorder will shut doors for me professionally, but I can’t not be who I am and I feel compelled to write about it and try to figure out what it means for me to be bipolar.

    Reply
    • It’s a tricky thing, a tightrope we walk between trying to “pass” and finding people and situations where we feel at ease being ourselves and even disclosing; but as you mention, “other people,” i.e. neurotypicals, won’t necessarily understand why you can’t just “pick yourself up and dust yourself off and get on with things.” I’m glad you’re writing about it. For me, that’s literally a life-saver. Keep writing!

      Reply
  13. Honestly cannot believe that these people exist. More likely, it’s even harder to believe that people of such age and supposed maturity would have acted better. Ironically, I gave a speech about depression today and many people said they learned a lot more about it than they would’ve known otherwise.

    Those people aren’t worth it. Depression is an illness much like our grandmothers having parkinson, both caused by a lack of dopamine (among other stuff). We’re only human,

    Reply
    • It is disappointing, isn’t it? That’s great that you’re speaking in public about depression. I think most people are afraid: they’re afraid it will rub off on them, like dirt or grease, or they’ll catch it, like a contagious disease. But mostly they’re afraid of having it. So they do stupid things and hurt people. But if more people would make the effort to reach out and educate them, I think it would be a lot better for us. Plus, I’m sure you helped the one-out-of-four people in your audience who are depressed, whether diagnosed or not!

      Reply
      • Yes! That’s definitely what I said. It’s so (ironically and sadly) funny that people think depression is a contagion. I put it for perspective for them that it’s prevalent in every 100 persons, so in their school having 1500, that makes up about half a classroom of depressed kids, and with your statistics about 375 more unrecognized! Ah, it could so very well be the captain of the football team. I don’t know if I say that was ill gloat or mournful sympathy..

        Reply
  14. Ms. Duck, I think it’s a poignant thought to think about the captain of the football team being depressed. I think there is a higher than average suicide rate with people in those positions, possibly a combination of stress, traumatic head injury, and depression either caused by those or those things overlaid on genetic depression. I don’t know if this is making any sense…you just touched off a stream of consciousness on that….it’s a good thought.

    Reply
  15. The stigma is bad. It is almost like “coming out of the closet” to honestly tell people what you are going through. The only time I disclosed and got a good response was when I had lunch with an old high school friend. I just came out and said it, and that the last year had been rough, hospital visits and all. She agreed and understood because she had also been diagnosed as bipolar. Our experiences had been similar for the last “hmmf-mumble” years. But seriously, what are the odds that a friend has the same mental illness?

    Reply
    • I’ve been surprised at the number of my friends who have BP disorder. I think my numbers are skewed because I am drawn to people who are “not normal,” not the run of the mill human being. The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) puts the lifetime prevalence of BP at just shy of 4%, so the odds are fairly slim of randomly choosing friends who are bipolar. But as I said, we might instinctively feel more comfortable with people who are “like us.” Take good care!

      Reply
  16. What a great example of why so many of us hide and perpetuate the self stigma. Thank you for this post! You are very strong. xoxo

    Reply
    • Well, I hid it till it came out and bit me and I couldn’t hide it any longer. Now I just mostly isolate myself because I can’t deal with other people. Most people are just afraid of me when I tell them I’m bipolar, because they’re waiting for me to take out my automatic weapons and start shooting. Others, like my former “friend,” just dry up and blow away. I’m hoping that when it becomes known that bipolar people are not any more dangerous than, say, people with diabetes or gout, that we will be able to just go about our business and be as “out” as the gay person who works down the hall.

      Reply
      • People are scared of what they don’t know. If you don’t know someone who has a mental illness, you have nothing to go on. I started looking into it 4 years ago after my dad died and my grandmother said he was bipolar and she “was what they called manic-depressive”. I had no idea what it was, but it landed my dad dead in a field in Miami and I KNEW how nuts my grandmother could be, so I was a little scared!

        Reply
  17. Wow, I’m so sorry about your dad. It’s amazing how the family will go to amazing lengths to keep the “skeletons” in the closet. It was only after my first hospitalization that my mother (who has severe undiagnosed behavioral issues) told me that her own mother had had hundreds of shock treatments for depression, many of them administered at home–with my mother and her sister holding their mother down during the “home ECT”!!!! And then there is the litany of suicides and disappearances into State Hospitals….gee, you’d think they’d give you a clue about this sort of thing in case you started feeling a bit off in some way….but no, it’s taboo, so you have to find out the hard way. Scary indeed!

    Reply
  18. I’m very open about my bipolar, because societal attitudes simply don’t change unless people know more about mental illness. It’s not lost me any friends yet, and I count myself lucky because of it. It seems that many people ‘write off’ people with mental illnesses because they just don’t understand, and that makes me angry and sad in equal parts. I don’t want to have to hide what I am, and I have to be prepared for the consequences of that. It’s hard when mental illness is so stigmatised, but I hope I can be part of the change.

    Reply
    • That’s great! I very much admire your front-lines courage. I’m starting to “come out” more and more, but since I’m very reclusive, and somewhat Aspergerian, I don’t do well with people in general and don’t have many people to “come out” to! I agree with you entirely that unless mental illness becomes normalized, we aren’t going to get anywhere. Thanks for your courage in being open. It’s inspiring!

      Reply
  19. Thanks for the ping!

    Reply
  1. The Energy Post – Manic Muses

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