Recollections of Recovery: An Alphabet of Emotions from Anger to Hope
Poetically Peeling the Mask of Stigma
Note: The following text is an abbreviated version of “Recollections of Recovery: An Alphabet of Emotions from Anger to Hope” published for the Center of Rehabilitation and Recovery, a project of the Coalition of Behavioral Health Agencies, Inc. in the years after Ms. Green’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
When I went to the drugstore to pick up my medication, the pharmacist informed me she could not fill prescriptions for psychotropic drugs. I insisted she was supposed to do so according to Timothy’s Law, state legislation to ensure that insurance companies cover physical health and mental health medications alike. Perhaps inadvertently, she said, “You’d be surprised at all the things we’re supposed to do that we don’t.”
I wanted a psychiatrist who was not influenced by drug companies. Instead of asking prospective providers where they went to school, or whether they were board certified in psychiatry and neurology, I asked about their relationships with the pharmaceutical industry. I started to see a psychiatrist who told me he had cut his ties to drug companies. However, one day he suggested an exorbitant formulation of a particular medication.
I told him I was outraged that he wasn’t recommending the regular pill or a cheap generic. He responded by prescribing
an antipsychotic with sedating side effects. Did he want to muzzle me chemically, like Russian dissidents who received a diagnosis of “sluggish schizophrenia”? I, too, showed symptoms of “perseverance” and “struggle for truth.”
Confusion is having more pills to take than you could keep track of if you were normal—and then trying to keep track of them while you are on those pills, and psychotic.
I remember a morning during an episode of depression when I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the bathtub. As I struggled, it struck me that it had been easier to write my doctoral dissertation. Somehow, eventually, I did it, making little waves. Maybe I did it the way flowers sprout from cracks in the asphalt—cracks I believe they make in their blind struggle to reach towards the sun.
Being manic had its good sides, especially when I was a square twenty-something who didn’t do drugs. It broadened my experience with the spectrum of elation. During one episode, I roamed the streets in the wee hours of the morning with a stranger who was used to artificially induced highs. He said, “I don’t know what you’re on, but I wish I had some of it!”
My manic self would think, “But yes, I can bottle it! I can sell spirits of mania in blue glass bottles, each with a message, like the ones sailors toss from a sinking ship, hoping that the message would find a reader. And let me see… these glass bottles at the discount store on the corner are a bargain. Let me order a few dozen, so I can have prototypes on hand for the next convention of behavioral health providers…”
Whether you want to start a business, jump into an affair, plan your presidential campaign, or conduct an imaginary orchestra in your living room, the elation in mania gives you energy, self-confidence, and an infectious happiness that makes people say, “yes.”
Although I do not lack self-esteem, sometimes I am surprised my husband married me. It must be difficult to deal with a woman who buys eight wedding gowns on eBay before you’ve even proposed.
I am also grateful because family and friends take me to hospitals in the middle of the night, visit me in psychiatric wards, and insist I see doctors when I think, with manic exuberance, I’ve never felt better in my life.
And they do one thing more. They prevent me from taking what cripples so many people with mental illness: the sick role.
“When do you want to come back to see me?” asked my psychiatrist. I liked him. He was smart, decent, and genuinely cared about me. Since we lived in a small community, we had “dual relationships,” if not “triple relationships.” He didn’t want to complicate matters further, or risk exploiting me, so he never charged me for visits.
We had already established that I wasn’t quite myself, but he didn’t know I had no idea what day, month, and perhaps year it was. I said smoothly, “Oh, I don’t have my appointment book
with me. Can I call you?”
Concealing impairment, adaptive at work and at school, but not everywhere, had become an inseparable part of me.
We have images of mass violence welded to mental illness, and disparities in health and mental health care. But we also have peer services, supportive housing, trauma-informed care, crisis respite centers, and more. I do not foresee an end to stigma and discrimination in my lifetime, but I am hopeful for the next generation.
Pullout: “…the pharmacist…could not fill [my] prescriptions for psychotropic drugs. I insisted she was supposed to do so according to Timothy’s Law…she said, ‘You’d be surprised at all the things we’re supposed to do that we don’t.’”