I am a 60-year old nurse with bipolar disorder forced into early retirement
by a group of educated professionals who should have known better. I want
to put a face on mental illness, but more importantly, fight the stigma.
I had my master's in psychiatric nursing at age 23 and had aspired to
get a doctorate and teach in a graduate school setting. I began dealing
with mental illness at the age of 24, just at a time when there seemed
to be so much promise. The first few years were difficult, and I encountered
discrimination at every turn. Unfortunately, I began this period with the
diagnosis of schizophrenia, which can be difficult to treat. As a result,
I was placed on medications that were inappropriate and put me at risk
for potentially life-threatening consequences. Somehow, I managed to emerge
alive and with my career intact, with the love of my soulmate and family.
When I was 58, a much younger and more astute psychiatrist delivered the
news that my problem was not schizophrenia, but bipolar disorder (manic
depression), a mood disorder much more amenable to treatment. The doctor
prescribed lithium, and I am both fortunate and pleased that it works beautifully
in my case. I am rediscovering myself, and my spirit is back.
I am a professional woman with two college degrees, yet I have faced stigma
from the beginning and most recently in 2002. The previous fall, following
an injury, I experienced a manic episode at home. My lithium dose was doubled,
and in three or four days my health came back. I returned to work in February
excited, anticipating a warm welcome back into the fold. This was not to
For a decade and almost half of another, I had worked there, embraced
as a person and valued as a professional. Now, however, they knew my secret.
In this workplace there had always been a distinction between consumers
and staff personnel—an "Us and Them" dichotomy, if you will. These consumers,
who came in periodically, were delightful yet seriously ill individuals.
Somehow, now I didn't fit in. The line between "us" and "them" suddenly
fell away, leaving behind a river of uncertainty and discomfort for my
co-workers. I was now like "them." Interestingly, another colleague received
extensive cancer therapy, along with unfailing, steadfast support from
everyone in the workplace. Even today when I think of the disparate attitudes,
the hurt is still fresh.
Now, they will not have the opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with
an effectively treated consumer. Remember, they did for 14 years, without
knowing. I am turning to other matters now: primarily fighting the stigma
and the hurt in other context. With God's help, I'll work and pray for
the day when all my consumer brothers and sisters can come forward and
walk proudly without fear of discrimination.