When I was little I loved spending time with my maternal grandmother. As I aged, we started having conversations that didn’t revolve around fun, kid-centric things. There’s a direct correlation between the frequency of our “serious” talks and how much I avoid her. Still and all, when I told her I’m bisexual (I’m actually pan but no way in hell do I have the energy to explain that gender isn’t binary to an 80 year old conservative), her response was pretty much, “And what? That changes nothing.” So I’m while I minimize my time with her, I’m not planning to cut her out of my life all together.
When I had spring break this year I took the train up her way and took her to lunch. She aired some truly disturbing political views, but that’s not what this post is about. I want to talk about how the stigma of mental health is really fucking hard to combat. I did my best, and I failed.
I don’t remember why we were talking about my mental health, but we were. I used the words “mentally ill” and “mental illness” multiple times. My grandmother said, “But I don’t consider you mentally ill.” I laughed and said, “Bipolar is classified as a serious mental illness.” To which she responded, “But I mean, you’re not mentally ill. Your brain is just sick.” Like… She pretty much defined mental illness, while refuses to admit that she defined my condition as a mental illness.
What she (and others) meant by “But I don’t consider you mentally ill” is “But you’re not crazy.” I blame this on two things.
- The news media is quick to portray violent criminals as mentally ill. Well, if they’re white. But that’s a topic for another post.
- Representation of the mentally ill in pop culture is either nonexistent, or presents it as debilitating and scary.
Now, my mental illness is debilitating and scary, but the majority of the time I can hide my symptoms from the world. My grandmother doesn’t know that I self mutilated for more than half my life, she doesn’t know I’ve tried to kill myself. She knows I was agoraphobic, and she knows I’ve been in mental institutions twice. But I don’t “act crazy” on a regular basis that she sees. I don’t hurt other people. I can carry on a conversation. I smile and laugh. So even though she can recognize that my brain is sick, she can’t equate that with her assumptions about what mental illness looks like.
I left lunch that day literally feeling dirty. I needed multiple cigarettes and on the hour long train ride home I furiously texted my mom and brother, filling them in on how ridiculous and unfortunate my grandmother is. For the next few days, I was so upset by what she said about my mental illness that it was keeping me up nights. I talked to my mom about it, and I agreed with her that the frustration of my grandmother’s opinion was less than the frustration I would feel after trying to explain the truth to her and having her be dismissive. We both knew that’s what would happen.
I want to be an ally to people who’s mental illnesses aren’t mostly invisible like mine, but I also need to pick my battles for the sake of my well being. If I think there’s any chance I can change someone’s misinformed views, I’ll take it. There’s no chance with my grandmother.
For the record, I am well aware that the invisible nature of my mental illness gives me tremendous privilege. That’s why I need to speak up, but it’s also why people like my grandmother don’t listen to me. Of course, they won’t listen to anyone. Maybe a straight, cis, white, male doctor? I dunno. I’m so fucking tired. Tired, and fucking mentally ill.