Internalised stigma

A friend has told me he met a really fantastic girl. She’s everything he dreamed of. They’ve been dating non-committally for a few months, and now he asked her to be his girlfriend. Her response? “I can’t be anybody’s girlfriend,” she said. “I have bipolar disorder, and it’s a terrible illness. I’m just not fit to have a relationship, any relationship at all.” He asked me how he could convince her. “You’ve got bipolar,” he said, “and you’re in a relationship. It’s possible to have a relationship while having bipolar, right?”

Of course it is. But then the problem with bipolar disorder is that it doesn’t actually make anything impossible. You can be a respected professor of psychiatry like Kay Redfield Jamison. You can be a super-popular actor and TV personality like Stephen Fry. You can be a chart-topping singer like Robbie Williams. You can be married, have kids, a good job. It’s just that for us it’s harder than for “normies”, and some of us overestimate the difficulty level based on what we heard and read about ourselves. And this is where internalised stigma comes in.

If you have ever played bridge, you know that you split into two partnered couples, deal the cards, where total of the points is 40, so your average is going to be 10. 10 points is a really irritating number because it’s too few to play, and too many to just pass. Still, average is just average, and so you’ll find yourself opening the cards and seeing 23 points, aces and kings competing for your attention, and in the next deal there will be a solitary jack, worth a grand total of 1 point. This is how life is for everyone. Pretty much any person on the street will tell you some areas of their life are going fine, some aren’t, their job is boring, but they have great kids, or the other way round.

When you suffer from depression, bipolar or other long-term illness, your average drops below 10. Maybe it’s 9, maybe it’s 7. But it’s still just average. You will still open your cards sometimes and see 23 points, just not as often. You’ll have more deals where you just have no points, or maybe 2 or 3. But it doesn’t mean you can’t play bridge. It says nothing about your ability as a player. And it says nothing about the next deal’s outcome. Also, you aren’t playing alone, you’re playing with a partner. You might have 7 points, but your partner might bring 25 in, and you’ll get a grand slam and clean the table, with your furious opponents losing completely. Without your 7 points, your partner would still win, but the victory would be nowhere as complete.

Declining to have a relationship, try to get any job at all or do anything else because you have bipolar is akin to throwing your cards down before you look at them. True, in the last five deals you might have been looking at numbers like 2 or 3 all the time. But this might be your lucky one. You will not know until you try. And in a relationship you aren’t alone; you’ve got a partner. When you lack points, your partner might come in to rescue you. I’ve celebrated my third anniversary a few days ago, and the amount of times my partner came to rescue me is staggering. It isn’t easy for him to be with me, largely because of my bipolar, but he loves me anyway, always stands by my side and never utters the dreaded “just pull yourself together” words. He’s seen me with depressions so debilitating I could barely breathe and he’s seen me with mania that took me to hospital. Then he came to visit me there multiple times.

I have to admit I have my own internalised stigma. I tend to feel ashamed of my depressions; I feel that I should be doing things, cleaning up the house, doing groceries, looking for work, basically doing anything that is not lounging on the sofa staring into space. Guilt and shame, which depression loves to magnify, come to haunt me, and I apologise for my illness. I even suggested we should split up, because he deserves better. My partner didn’t particularly enjoy this suggestion. It was me throwing down the cards and going “I can’t play this game, I’m going to lose” before looking at them. But, as you would expect, I was wrong. We won the game that night. And we continue winning it every day. Sometimes it’s a grand slam of happiness, sometimes a miserable one of spades. But my answer to the question “is it possible to have a relationship when you have bipolar disorder?” remains a resounding YES.

Photo: “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by Josep Ma. Rosell (CC 2.0)

Submit a comment