Tag Archives: stigma

Normal vs. Normal

For the last week I’ve been wearing a doctor-ordered heart monitor, 24/7. Last week I casually called my doctor asking if there was any way to have my heart checked out, because I was nervous the Geodon has been having ill effects on my heart (which, heck, I don’t know, but I’ve been having some odd symptoms). They rushed me into the doctor’s office that day, and after an EKG they concluded that, at the very least, I have an arrhythmia.

Basically, that means I have an irregular heartbeat. This could be nothing at all (as many people have irregular heartbeats that don’t cause problems) but they set me up with the monitor to make sure there aren’t any larger problems at work.

This week I’ve found myself thinking back to my childhood, and even more recently, when I’ve thought to myself, “wow, it doesn’t sound like my heart is beating normally.” It sort of speeds up and slows down and pauses every once in a while, but since this is what I was used to… it seemed normal. 

After 27 years, this same activity has been deemed irregular. Abnormal, compared to most other hearts.

It makes me laugh, a little bit, about how often this sort of thing happens. Not about hearts, necessarily, but with life. Mental illness is another example of how, though I was used to the symptoms (they are my normal), I’ve been told that they are abnormal when compared to the general population.

Lots of little things raced through my mind, like growing up thinking one thing (that seemed normal) only to realize later that it was abnormal. Trying hard to avoid seeming normal through high school and college (coupling me with a group of people that had the same goal, making our actions ironically normal to us).

What is the fascination we all have with what is normal? It is a word that has its own stigma associated with it, is normal good? Is normal bad? What defines what is normal? Is it something you can quantify, or is it simply our own perception?

The thing that I don’t like about the word normal is that its being requires its opposite; abnormal. The connotation that comes with abnormal is a negative one. Nobody wants an abnormal test result at the doctor’s office, and who could forget the “abby-normal” brain Dr. Frankenstein puts in his monster in Young Frankenstein? 

So, if something isn’t normal, it is abnormal… leaving “normal” to be the option of choice.

With mental illness, it is easy to feel abnormal. What feels normal to someone with bipolar disorder might seem extremely abnormal to someone who doesn’t have the illness, and it is common to hear that our thoughts or behaviors are abnormal (when compared to the general population).

I have a few final thoughts on this matter…

First, lets consider replacing “normal” with the word average. An average can be measured with mathematics, it isn’t something that is based on our perception of ourselves and those around us. “Average” also doesn’t have a negative word associated with its antonym, so there is no particular pull  or shame involved with being average or not-average. Personally, just thinking back on my life, I can feel an extreme desire in my youth wanting to be “normal” (the same way kids want to be well-liked by peers), but if you replace “normal” with the word “average”, I have never felt inclined to be average (beyond wanting to stay within the realistic realm of human behavior, and not be so not-average I become a menace)!. The switch in words makes me feel more confident in myself, instead of making me feel ashamed.

Second, lets take a second to consider how the perception of what is “normal” is formed. When we are used to something, a set of symptoms, for example, if they are all we’ve ever known, we don’t have anything else to compare them to. How could we have another perspective, or even know that symptoms or actions aren’t average?

At the same time, there is the perception of “normal” that is formed in the community, basically social norms and standards set by the actions of the people within it. People’s personal versions of what is normal can be wildly different, and not fit into the community’s expectations of “normal” at all… and people can live their entire lives without realizing they are acting in a way that is considered socially unacceptable (because it is the only way they know how to act).

Personally, I believe that we are capable of creating our own personal “normal”. By going to therapy (to get another perspective of my normal) and having expectations for myself beyond what what been my normal in the past, I’m changing the way I manage my symptoms, and interact with others. Though I may be pretty far outside the realm of social normalcy (having pretty active bipolar disorder), I’ve found ways to connect with others and make that social normalcy more accessible.

And finally, if you don’t like not fitting in with the social norms around you, why not change the people around you? If you have recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, lets say, and you have been told you are now abnormal compared to your friends and family, you can switch things up by comparing yourself to the population of people with bipolar disorder. In other words, head to a support group. Surround yourself with people who share the same “normal” as you! Putting yourself where you are considered average, and the change in perspective can really help in the acceptance process!

Normalcy is a funny concept. I can’t say that I fully understand it, and what it means to the vast majority of people in our society. But, with bipolar disorder, I am in a constant state of change… which means I often feel free to change the things around me that others wouldn’t generally consider. My sense of normalcy, how I view myself, and how others view me are all things I have spent many years contemplating and trying to understand, but every day I still learn something new.

Maybe my normal and your normal are cousins. Maybe they’re familiar, or maybe they’re total opposites. The point, I think, is that they’re always changing too…

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The Batman Massacre; Mental Illness?

I’ve tried, for the last few hours (since waking up) to write something, but my morning has been engulfed by report after report on the tv.

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the shooting that occurred overnight in Colorado at the midnight showing of the latest Batman film. If you haven’t, turn on the television -I know it is being talked about here on (literally) every channel.

As I’ve watched the reactions from folks I know in Colorado, people on facebook, twitter, and the like I have began feeling overwhelmed with the anger and sadness that spans the country.

All I seem to be able to think about, though, is what must have been going through the head of the young man that did this.

Could mental illness be a factor here?

I mean, there have already been reports by witnesses that said he claimed he was the Joker, which is exactly the sort of delusional claim I would expect from someone who would commit a crime like this.

And this is what tends to upset me, because I know that doesn’t change what he did, but I think it should change the way we look at it.

I also know that many people who begin having problems with mental health are terrified to seek help because of the way mental illness is perceived in our country. If that was the case here, and that fear is what created an avalanche of issues that triggered this event, I think we all have something to regret.

I know this is all speculation at this point, but this is straight where my thoughts have gone.

I think each and every one of us has a responsibility to seek help if we become emotionally overwhelmed or notice changes in our mental health.

In the long run, that one step may save the lives of ourselves or others.

The Jane Pauley Stigma Position

I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to talk about this, but honestly the topic has been bothering me ever since reading the article.

Jane Pauley, the previous NBC broadcaster, has been open about dealing with bipolar disorder in her memoir Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue. That is something I have to give two thumbs up, because all I can really hope for is that people are more open about what they’ve dealt with in terms of mental illness. The more people that talk about it, the less ignorance there is, the less stereotypes ring true, and the more stigma is eradicated.

Right?

That’s what I believe anyway.

Over at the StarTribune website there is a video with a brief interview with Pauley, with a transcript of a small portion here:

You’re starting a campaign against the word ‘stigma?’

“I’d like us to stop using the word. What it describes is real. I think that we inadvertently amplify the power of those old stereotypes when we repeat the word. And for people who have mental health issues it makes us feel bad. Stigma [she said making a cut sign across her throat]. With regard to suicides in the military and not getting help because of the blah, blah, blah, including stigma. So the reference was accurate but we can attack attitudes that are misinformed and out of date. But if we describe what I have as a medical illness, which is hard, we will remove those attitudes but replace them with hope not fear. I’m against the word.

I was completely perplexed reading this, so if you’re as confused as I am I’d reccomend looking at the video. The video interview captures a bit more with the inflections in her voice, but I still sat for several minutes after watching it feeling confused.

In my own life, I have always classified stigma as a sort of fear that was attached to ignorance. Something that suggests repression for no apparent reason, and describes the gap that people place between themselves and those with mental illness because of that fear.

But from the dictionary:

Stigma: a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.

I have long moved past the idea that mental illness scratches a big mark into my forehead to warn people to stay away or somehow tarnishes my reputation, but there is obviously something that leaves people feeling uncomfortable and distant, and I think it is that something that gets pinned with the name stigma. 

Whatever it is, a mark on us of some kind, a gap between the open and the misinformed, or that lack of knowledge itself, Pauley stresses that it is real. Stigma is real, but she stresses that talking about it does more harm than good.

This is the part where I get very confused.

There have been a lot of gaps in American history where one group of people is discounted by another, but I don’t believe Women, African Americans, or homosexuals have made any progress in closing that gap by not talking about the gap. 

So there is a gap. Ok, I agree. But I think there are a lot of people who aren’t even aware that gap exists and really can’t begin to consider the issue until it comes up for them, whether that is talking about it, or being involved in someone’s life who is living with some part of it. That misinformation is beginning to fade, but I think we’ve still got a way to go.

Anyway, I’ve never had my feelings hurt by the word stigma, just by the actions associated with it. Without something to call those actions, I’d probably be more inclined to consider the people behind them assholes instead of just misinformed. That leaves me glad there is a word that describes the unjustified fear and discrimination I’ve been met with, and gives me a name for the wall I’m here to push for breaking down

If you want to read the entire transcript of Jane Pauley’s interview, you can see it here. 

This New Year Bring Change 2 Mind

1 in 6 adults has a brain-related illness including depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD and schizophrenia.

A week or two ago I stumbled upon an article that intrigued me by Glenn Close. Yes, the celebrity Glenn Close.

“Mental Illness: The Stigma of Silence” discusses both Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness and the steps Close has taken to try and help alleviate the stigma around mental illness. Close has a sister with bipolar disorder, and a nephew with schizophrenia.

More interesting to me, though, is the group that she helped found called Bring Change 2 Mind.

I held off on writing about it because it seemed like the perfect topic for the new year.

I’m not one for making resolutions, especially when so many people associate new years resolutions with dieting. BUT, I encourage you to visit bringchange2mind.org and consider taking the pledge.

Bring Change 2 Mind is all about helping erase the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

The website boasts two goals:

  1. Provide people who have misconceptions about mental illness quick and easy access to information that combats stigma.
  2. Provide people who have mental illness, and those who know them, quick and easy access to information and support.

The Pledge is for anyone who is living with a mental illness, knows someone with a mental illness, or anyone who just wants to help. The goal is to make a change one person at a time.

Here’s the pledge, taken directly from the website:

I pledge to follow the Bring Change 2 Mind principles:

For people living with mental illness:

  • I am living with a mental illness that is treatable and manageable.
  • I am a valuable and valued person and I deserve to be treated with respect.
  • I am responsible for the decisions and choices I make in my life.
  • Educating myself about the symptoms of my illness, and any side effects I may have from treatment, will help me find and use the resources I need to work toward stability.
  • Communicating about my experiences with others will help them support me in difficult times and keep me “on track.”
  • If I am feeling suicidal, it is critical that I reach out for help, for in the face of real pain and suffering, it is others who can help me with a commitment to live.
  • I can reduce stigma in myself and in others by being open about living with mental illness, naming it out loud, and raising people’s awareness.

For everyone:

  • It is likely that someone I know is living with a mental illness and that fear of stigma may be preventing them from accepting their illness and seeking help.
  • I can make a difference by learning about mental health issues and the devastating effects of stigma.
  • If someone I know exhibits sudden changes in behavior, I will pay attention and reach out to them.
  • If someone I know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, I will take it seriously and make every effort to ensure they get help.
  • I will not perpetuate or tolerate stigma of any kind and will commit myself to changing the way society views people living with mental illness.

The website has a form you can submit in order to solidify your pledge, and I encourage anyone who is serious about helping erase stigma to check it out.

We need your help in order to make change, please consider ringing in the new year with a pledge to improve the lives of those living with mental illness. I made the pledge, will you?