Saturday, September 10, 2011

The "Chosen" Illness

It is very interesting for me to watch how the stigma against dementia, which my mom has, and the stigma against mental illness varies. There are many similarities with both illnesses, such as how people are uncomfortable around you and there is this feeling that people with these illnesses are weird and embarrassing. However, the big difference is that most people have compassion for people with dementia. Not as many people have compassion for those of us with mental illness, particularly with bipolar disorder. I believe this is because most people think mental illness is a choice, whereas they see dementia as an illness inflicted upon someone.

But let me tell you, mental illness is never something I would have chosen. I would not wish it on my worst enemy. Why would I chose this much suffering? Why would I chose to have this affect my family?

No one would chose that. No one would chose to have something else take over your brain so much so that you try and stop yourself from your actions and you can't. It is as if you are watching something horrible happen right in front of you, but you can't get there fast enough to stop it. Some people even have times when they don't even know what they did for hours or days at a time.

The choice I do have though is to keep fighting. Sometimes the only way I can make that choice is because I have asked people to make it for me when my brain is so impaired that I can't do it myself. That is why people with mental illness need compassion. This is an illness which we did not choose, we deserve the same compassion as everyone else, and we need help.

I often hear people judge others with mental illness and say they are irresponsible, bad, and intentionally mean, especially when what someone has done has hurt another person. I do not believe it is alright for us to hurt others because of our illness, but the fact is, this illness does hurt those around us. So does every other illness though. Breast cancer devastates the patient's family and friends. Dementia causes many patients to be mean to their loved ones. Every illness affects the people we love.

People often say of patients with dementia who belittle, yell at, and demean their spouse: "It's just their illness." However when I do not act as kind as I should to my spouse, people have said to me: "You are a horrible wife."

Instead of blaming the person, it would be much better if we helped them. It was not until my husband had compassion and understood my illness was not a choice that we were able to work together to find a way for him to hold me accountable and intervene when I have little choice in my actions.

For instance, I overeat sugar when my illness is bad, and then the sugar just makes me worse. It was not until my husband understood that I can't just choose not to eat the candy in the house that he was able to help me. Just today I was very angry and went to get candy to eat, only to find he had locked it all away. He was able to give me agency in my life and help me do the right thing by taking over for me when my mind does not give me a choice in what I am doing.

Understanding that mental illness is not a chosen illness has allowed me to ask for help. Actually, it allowed me to insist that I deserved compassion, just like everyone else. Which means I finally know that I am a good person and I will do whatever it takes to be stable. I do understand some people have such severe mental illness that they can not even make the choice to ask for help, to try and be stable. We can still hold them accountable, but not believe they are a bad person who chooses to be this way.

I didn't choose my illness and I can't always choose what my mind does. However, I can choose, with the help of others, to set up my life and make a plan that gives me the most possibility of success. I chose to ask people to hold me accountable and help me get back on track. I chose to never give up.


Rev. Katie


  1. Great post, as always.

    I experience "the look" when someone finds out and after that it seems that just about everything that comes out of my mouth is dissected to see if I'm stable. I also feel like an incredible burden on my husband of 15 years after getting an official diagnosis just 1 year ago. He is a "simple" person and I often think he wishes he had a "simple" wife.

    Yeah, who the hell would "wish" to be this way.

  2. Thanks for your comment Dark Mother. It is interesting how sharing something actually makes us even more suspect. Now everything we do gets judged, even the good things we do.