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How I Battle the Stigma of Bipolar Disorder

By Gabe HowardJanuary 19, 2018
From the WebMD Archives

As a person who lives with bipolar disorder, I have faced a lot of stigma and discrimination, from extreme examples, such as being fired from my job, to small things, like a doctor assuming that I’m on disability (when I’ve never been on disability).

People tend to make blanket assumptions about my life based on a lot of false stereotypes surrounding bipolar disorder and those of us who live with it. People believe we are unable to work, can’t be in stable relationships, and must live off our parents, among other things.

These misconceptions hurt, and they can slowly chip away at someone’s self-worth and confidence.

For example, I own my own home, drive a nice car, have an adorable puppy named Peppy, and love my 75-inch television. When people begin to realize that I’m not the version of someone living with bipolar disorder that they have in mind, a sort of “mental gymnastics” begins to take place.

Rather than take my life at face value, as they would for anyone else, they try to make the undeniable facts in front of them fit within their stereotypes of what a person with bipolar is like.

First, they start to wonder if I’m in debt up to eyeballs or if I come from a wealthy family. I’m not in debt — I avoid debt like the plague and don’t even have a car loan — and, while my family is comfortable, my retired, truck-driving father isn’t going to be featured on an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Then, when they learn that my wife has a good job, there is an “a-ha” moment in people’s minds. They know that I work in mental health advocacy, so they assume my job is some sort of “jobs program” for people with mental illness, rather than a hard-earned career at which I’m quite accomplished. People further assume that my wife makes all the money, and I’m mooching off her success.

I’ve endured comments like, “I wish my son/daughter would marry someone with a steady income like Gabe’s wife.” I mean no disrespect to my wife when I say this, but, in fact, I make more money than she does, and our accomplishments are equally shared. We are both successful. We achieve together and share equally in the spoils of my success and hers. To have my contributions erased based solely on the knowledge of my illness is a devastating blow. That it is unwarranted and untrue makes it all the worse.

I wish people would stop and consider why they feel compelled to force people with bipolar disorder to fit in a specific box. It’s nonsense, if you stop and think about it. Do they think the same thing about every single person with any illness?

We all have different levels of abilities, intelligence, and value systems. While all of us living with bipolar disorder do have our illness in common, that is really where the similarities end. Treat us the same as you would everyone else, because we are just like everyone else.

Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer, mental health advocate, and sought-after speaker. He is the host of The Psych Central Show podcast and a regular contributor to Psych Central, Bipolar Magazine, and other online journals. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife, Kendall. He can be found online at gabehoward.com

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