Recently a friend blogged about Michael’s death (read her blog here). In her post, she shared about how shocked she was to learn that the vivacious man she remembered had died by suicide. As I read her thoughts, I remembered doing whatever I could to help Michael cover up his struggles with bipolar disorder. We simlply didn’t want others to know about his mental illness.
When we first learned that Michael had bipolar disorder, we were so embarrassed. We had both thought of people with mental illness as “crazy people,” not people like us. What would others think if they knew about this? Michael was a minister — we couldn’t let this darken his image. For years we tried to hide the truth. In hindsight, I realize that this was one of the worst mistakes we made.
Our family and friends saw the mood swings and erratic behavior as rudeness and took it personally. Man quit calling or inviting us over. Perhaps if they had known the truth, they would have been more understanding. Because we suffered in silence, Michael and I both felt very alone. After years of struggling privately, I finally opened up to a few people that we knew and loved and I was shocked by their response — they loved us anyway!
Mental illness is not a bad case of the “crazies.” It can affect anyone regardless of social status, economics, education… We never dreamed it would touch our lives the way it did. There is still a stigma attached to mental illness, and I believe that the only way to combat it is through storying. Those of us whose lives have been affected by mental illness must not be ashamed. There is no shame in being mentally ill. We need to speak out and let the world know that though a person might suffer from a mental illness, that illness does not define the person.
For those who knew and loved Michael and did not know about his illness prior to his death, I am so sorry. I wish we had had the courage to be open about it. His death has given me a platform to raise awareness in hopes of saving lives. Help us attack the stigma by embracing those in your life who struggle with a mental illness. Support them. Love them. Treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.