Sometime in I think late 2018 I got a very polite email from a grad student who was working on her master’s thesis, I think in sociology. She wanted to ask me about my mental illness. I told her I would answer what I felt like answering and she said cool and we set up the call. She asked some basic preliminaries about when I was first diagnosed, how often I’ve been in and out of treatment, and so on. Finally she got to what seemed to be the real meat of her interest – given everything, would I choose to not have bipolar disorder if I could, to have never had it?
I told her the truth: that there is nothing I would not give to cure my mental illness, and that I have desperately wanted to not be the way I am since I first was hospitalized in 2002. She didn’t say anything to contradict me, but it seemed not to be the answer she was looking for, judging from the follow up questions and the inflection of her voice. She probed a little bit, then dropped it and thanked me. She told me she’d send me the thesis when it was done but I never heard from her again. If I had to guess I’d say she was looking for a little more romance.
There’s a thing that happens now after mass shootings. Some people say, this proves we need more funding for mental health. Others then react, saying that actually, the mentally ill are no more likely to commit violence than anyone else (true), and therefore to suggest that mental illness may have played a role in a violent act is to stigmatize the mentally ill and therefore to be ableist. Of course this is to misunderstand the relationship between responsibility and culpability; personally, I have been and am responsible for everything I’ve done under the influence of my disorder, and also mental illness influences behavior and provokes people to do things they would not have otherwise. More to the point, there is a difference between saying that mentally ill people are violent and saying that mental illness sometimes compels people to commit violence. If you can’t conceive of that difference you’ll end up in a world where there are no legal exemptions made for the mentally ill and where we throw schizophrenics into regular jail for crimes committed under the influence of their disease. This is a curious way to honor a profoundly vulnerable class of people.
When I had my breakdown in 2017 my brother dropped everything, took the next train to NYC, figured out my insurance, dragged me to a hospital, and didn’t leave until I had gotten treatment. He robbed me of my agency, you might say. If he hadn’t I’d have ended up in jail. Everyone deserves someone like that in their life. He was too busy saving my life to honor my illness and I’m guessing stigma never crossed his mind. Thank god for that.