Living Out Loud: : I Don't Need an Exorcism

Dealing with bipolar stigma

When I get home from work, I sometimes morph into a couch potato. Particularly, I like CSI: New York.

I keep hoping that Stella and Mac will get it on. They never do, but those bastard writers have me hooked. Nice job.

A while back, I turned on Without a Trace. As a writer, I enjoy becoming a detective, uncovering tangled webs and mysteries. But that night there was a pretty, meek-looking woman missing. The first scene showed the pour soul enduring an exorcism — chained to the bed, the creepy priest, the works.

Intrigued and rattled, I watched the "possessed girl" writhe and scream.

I should have turned it off, but I couldn't, because I heard her parents describe her as "bipolar." Since I have bipolar disorder, I watched to see, once again, how the media would portray someone with my illness.

As detectives uncovered clues, in every flashback the missing woman wore gray, frumpy clothes. Her job was taking lunch orders from corporate "normal" people. Describing her as hopeless, her mom said, "I can't even deal with her anymore."

By this point, it seemed that her family was glad she was missing. Teary, I took notes, then turned off the TV, throwing the remote.

It's called stigma. "Psycho," "freak," "crazy," "mad" — I've heard them all. Last Monday, I heard a friend say, "God, I'm so bipolar." He doesn't have a brain disorder. He felt "nuts."

I've had two major ill episodes in my lifetime along with long periods of getting better. But most people around me didn't even know I'd been in the hospital.

I never missed work. I looked thin but pretty normal, an artistic person. Whatever normal is.

How many "normal" people run away from issues? I might have a label, but I'm facing things.

One boyfriend never saw me ill. Over the two years we dated, instead of being happy that I was well he claimed that I made it up. Another boyfriend was consumed by the fear that I might get sick; he didn't want to hear about it. If the issue would've been a tumor, would he have had the same view?

I see the doc, get checkups. So do other people with chronic illnesses. But hundreds of years of stigma are hard to battle.

Back in the day, they treated brain disorders by locking people up in sanitariums, burning them at the stake, etc. Seems archaic, but why is it that each year current Halloween haunted houses depict "crazy patients" in straightjackets alongside "mad asylum doctors?"

Many have seen the terrifying shock treatment scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Shock treatments are presently called ECTs, Electroconvulsive Therapy. They're not painful; patients are under anesthesia.

ECTs are used to treat severe clinical depression and mania. Without them, many patients would be prematurely in heaven.

In the movie Mr. Jones, Richard Gere's bipolar character craves manic highs and runs around on rooftops, fearless. I never crave mania. It's terrifying, horrifying, surreal. I don't want to be there. I am much more creative and fluid as a writer when I'm well.

Then there's Sally Field's character Maggie on ER. Maggie appears only to screw up her daughter's life, constantly manic; she talks like someone on speed.

Some bipolar people do talk fast when manic. I didn't. My speedy words were internal. On the outside, I looked like the usual quiet woman I am.

Minute to minute, Maggie falls into manic fits. My episodes were years apart, and they didn't fluctuate by moment. It took years for a mania to appear full force. It wasn't day-to-day unmanageability. It happened over a long period of time.

Are there people running around who don't seek treatment? You bet. Some don't want it. Countless others can't afford medication.

And because of stigma some don't get treated. Who would want the bipolar label and all that it represents? For that reason, I'm scared stiff to write this, to put myself out there.

When ill, synapses in my brain fired incorrectly, which caused a multitude of confusing thoughts. The words "manic" and "depressed" are not everyday feelings. They're symptoms of an illness. Far from happy or sad.

I have a master's degree. I work, pay bills.

Do I have to watch my stress? Yes, I have to be mindful, create a flexible work schedule, see my doctor, take meds.

Do I have symptoms from time to time? Definitely. Yesterday sucked. But doesn't everyone have sucky days, issues? I have to be aware of my disease, but I don't need to be ashamed of it. I don't need an exorcism.

I fight stigma, but at times it feels like an uphill battle. I'm writing a book about it, a memoir. And when I'm done, I'd like to rename that show Without a Clue.



CONTACT C.A. MACCONNELL: letters(at)citybeat.com. Living Out Loud runs every week at citybeat.com and the second and fourth issues of each month in the paper.

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