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What’s your (stereo)type?

By Leanne Simpson

This content contains explicit and sensitive information that may not be suitable for all ages.

For every person who gets what it’s like to have mental illness, there’s 3 others who think you spend all your free time hyperventilating in a corner. That’s why what we do at SickNotWeak is so important – the only way for us to rewrite the standard definition of mental illness is to share, to open up and show the world what we’re really made of (hint: it’s not stress balls and bowls of ice cream, either). When I was diagnosed with bipolar at the ripe young age of 17, I probably didn’t have the best idea of what to expect either. This is probably because the only bipolar role model I knew at that point was a character from The Young and the Restless who was often accused of sleeping with people’s husbands (or husbands’ fathers) and pushing people into volcanos. That was not the life path I had envisioned for myself.

I’m happy to report that there have been no volcano fatalities on my part, and that being bipolar wasn’t the horror story it was all cracked up to be. Yes, there are times when I make 27 phone calls in 12 hours, and there are times when I go through half a Kleenex box in a single night. But there are more times where I am grateful for the good days, and the opportunity I have to connect with other people who understand how valuable those days are (aka you guys). Having a mental illness is definitely a struggle, but it’s by no means as dramatic as everyone thinks it is. We just go through more Kleenex sometimes.

I’m happy to report that there have been no volcano fatalities on my part.

That’s why it can be so confusing to come across one of those people who thinks your mental illness is the end of the friggin’ world, the people who are amazed that you can even get your laundry done on a weekly basis (okay, bi-weekly – I like to wait until it’s a giant mountain so my dogs can climb it). There are a lot of negative stereotypes floating around like dandelion fluff in the wind, and while they can be hurtful to hear, sometimes the best thing to do is to laugh them off afterwards. Here are five bipolar/anxiety stereotypes I’ve been slapped with in my lifetime:

1. When you sleep over at a guy’s house and he looks you dead in the eyes and asks if you’ll still like him in the morning because you’re bipolar.

I mean, there’s rapid cycling and then there’s just plain ignorance. Dating with bipolar takes a certain kind of patience and understanding, but average mood cycles take months, not hours.

2. When people don’t understand how someone with severe anxiety can give speeches for a living.

Being anxious doesn’t necessarily mean being shy. My anxiety is triggered by change, and manifests itself in the way I react to environmental stressors. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and I don’t have to explain why an  unfinished to-do list gives me more worry than a stadium full of people.

Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

3. “That guy should be locked up in the loony bin!”

Someone said to this me on a date once, without knowing that I had been institutionalized the year before. I think people have a certain idea of what mental health patients look like, and they tend to forget that mental illness takes many forms and affects millions of people, regardless of where they grew up, what marks they got in high school, or how pretty their hair looks that day (mine was a solid 5/7).

4. Anxiety + anxiety = more anxiety?

Dating someone with a mental illness when you have a mental illness is challenging, for sure. Not only do you have to keep track of your patterns and triggers, but you also have to watch out for the person you love. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend all your time in an anxiety blanket fort together – it also means that you don’t have explain panic attacks at parties, insecurities, or days where you’re just plain sad. It can create a place where it’s really okay not to be okay.

5. When people lower their expectations of you because of your illness.

This is something we all encounter on a regular basis. I’ve been told I can’t do stuff – or should be realistic about what I can achieve – so many times that I’ve lost count. Whether it’s working your dream job, starting a family, or writing the book you’ve had inside you for years (that’s mine), you don’t have to lower your expectations. You just need to accommodate what’s important to you.

These are some of the roadblocks I’ve stumbled across, and I would love to hear your funny stories of being underestimated, or even just times you used all the Kleenex in the box. Comment on this article with the worst mental illness stereotype you’ve come across, and let’s start rewriting our stories!

Comments

iam1in5
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First of all … thank you Leanne. Second of all … I can’t wait for “the book you’ve had inside you for years” to come out. I’ll be the first in line at your first book-signing 🙂 And, last but not least … the worst (or most ridiculous??) thing I hear all the time about my son, who struggles with BPD, is “but he’s such a good boy”. Since when did having a horrendous illness ever have anything to do with how good (or not good) someone is? Seriously, right?

nottheonlyone
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Hi Leanne. Someone I once dated who suffered from depression informed me while dumping me that people with depression are not allowed to date bipolar people!

Leanne
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Thanks for chiming in guys! I’m actually working on my book now, in the middle of a giant scary thunderstorm 🙂 1in5, I feel like that’s a really common and unfortunate way of looking at mental illness – people struggle to separate the social and medical aspects of it all the time! And I’ve heard the dating restriction one too – my friend’s therapist advised her not to date someone else with a mental illness because it would be too triggering, but I think you really have to take it on a case-by-case basis, because some of the strongest relationships I know are built off mutual support through diagnoses and bad days 🙂

DHead
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Thanks for writing Leanne. Keep up the good fight.

fnygrrl
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Regarding expectations…I actually have the opposite problem. I guess I’ve become a little too skilled at masking my illness, usually to my own detriment (anxiety, BPD and depression do some pretty horrible things to your body when you don’t deal with them) which means people in my life give me very little room to deal with any of it. I’m a single mom (have been for almost 20 years now), a full time student at 41 in the top 5% of my faculty, putting a ridiculous amount of pressure on myself to keep it all together. I have the unfortunate circumstance of being surrounded by people who think that when things are going OK, it means I’m “better” and the illness is gone. So the expectations rise and I race to live up to them. I was diagnosed at 18, and this has been my life ever since. I’m afraid to tell anyone close to me that I’m still sick because I hate that look of disappointment whenever I even mention I might be struggling again. They simply hold my “successful” life up in front of me and say “but how could anything possibly be wrong?”.

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