By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
There is too much stigma around mental disorders these days. Let me say this loud, clearly and proud; I suffer with a mental disorder.
Sometimes it feels like everybody today has some form of mental disorder. But the question becomes why this should be so. One distinct possibility is that we know more about these disorders than we used to. I was diagnosed as “Manic Depressive” so long ago that it was still called “Manic Depressive”. This means I have a hard time controlling my emotions. My therapist at one point described it saying that my “euphoric” days, few and far between they may be, is actually the pretty normal level that most people feel, but it seems euphoric to me because my normal level is so low. These days are always followed, typically by the next day, by excessive lows, she tells me because I had a taste of what normal feels like, so the down feels so much further down.
Well, maybe. I can tell you that being alone hurts. A lot. And I’ve discovered that the two loneliest times when you have nobody is when things go horribly awry (as they are these days for me), or when they go amazingly great. It might make sense to the reader that, with nobody to lean on, bad days are really bad, but it’s probably more painful when you have nobody with whom to share great news. And, for my friends reading this, yes, it’s great to have you all with whom to share news, but let’s be real; it’s not the same thing as sharing with a life partner.
So today, I’m told, “Manic Depressive” is no longer used because it has been replaced by half a dozen or so more specific diagnoses. Clearly this is a sign that psychology is advancing and moving on, which supports the notion that we know more today than we used to. The other possibility is that, as a society, we are under increasing stress leading to more mental disorders. Today, students are faced with questions such as if the pay differential will make education a good investment or not, and people are facing an income disparity so great that inflation is outpacing pay raises. The divide in our nation is at the worst it has been quite possibly since we had become a nation, and our political system is at a stalemate. We have more decisions to make about our futures than ever before, with enormous consequences and greater uncertainty.
As a society, we are also becoming more vocal about our emotions. This, too, is a good thing, but it also leads to a large portion of our population seeking diagnosis. I am old enough to have been raised with the traditional “men have no emotions” attitude, which is something that I have had to expend considerable effort to break out of. As men face more of their inner demons, they find burdens to overcome. My therapist tells me that I was emotionally abused as a child, and claimed that the trauma of emotional abuse is akin to the trauma of rape. To this day, I find it difficult to assume that my trauma is as great as that, but I do acknowledge that it is a trauma and has had a profound impact on who I have become. But, women are facing tough transitions as well.
Part of this is that women are stepping up in greater numbers, and taking on a far stronger leadership role than ever before in history. An example of this is the largest female population elected to Congress than ever before in history, but it’s more than that. Grassroots movements like the #MeToo movement, and calling out toxic masculinity represents great advances in the right direction for our society, advances that have been far too long in the making. It also puts more stress on women to step up to be a part of such movements.
This kind of stress is all too often discounted, but take it from me when I say that such honesty is excessively difficult. If you don’t believe me, try sharing your browser history with your parents. Sitting in that therapist’s office, the days that I knew I needed to be there the most were the days that I so desperately wanted to skip. Therapy is a process of give and wait, but it is unconscious. See, trust can’t be given; it must be earned. So, I realized that what my mind was doing was sharing some little bit of myself that I would rather keep hidden. Then, for several sessions following, I wouldn’t share much. That time wasn’t wasted since we worked on the information I did share, but basically, I was waiting to see what the therapist did with this tidbit. Knowledge is power, which makes it a weapon, so in essence I was waiting to see what she did with that weapon. When I realized that she would not turn it on me, then I would (again, subconsciously) feel empowered to give her another one.
We all do this. We get involved in a relationship, but no matter how excited or happy we are, there are things we hold back. It might be something to do with our dating history, finances, legal history, but it’s something. I find it difficult to share my fetishes which are dark enough that they are what prompted me to seek therapy in the first place. (No, I’ve never indulged without willing partners, and always took extreme measures to be sure that even willing partners were very safe and never in danger. These protections will likely be the subject of a future post.) As we become more comfortable with our partners, and give them more and more weapons they could lose against us, we open up more and more.
The reason I feel compelled to share all of this with you is because I’ve had too many friends who have struggled with conditions like mine who have been afraid of the repercussions. I believe in therapy; I’ve had great success with it and would, frankly, like to resume someday soon. I also believe that we need to normalize this discussion, and be more supportive of one another. Understanding that these conditions are real, that there is no need for shame, that they are relatively common, and that the discussion should be normalized is important for a healthier and more understanding community.