No One Will Know Why You Were Out; Or, Secret and Stigma

August 1, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Posted in Fighting Prejudice, Work Life | Leave a comment

So. I went inpatient for 10 days. After my release, I took 30 days of medical leave from work on the advice of my attending psychiatrist. I start work again tomorrow, and, being a rational creature, I’m as anxious as hell. I feel guilty for having let the program down, and, yeah, crusader against stigma that I am, I’m tormented with self-consciousness about having had a bout with a mental illness.

I know, I know, it’s a perfectly legitimate affliction, just as real as diabetes or cancer, blah-blah-blah. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Decent people will feel sympathy, and anyone who doesn’t isn’t worth my contempt. And so forth. I know this advice because I’ve been here before. In graduate school and while teaching I created my share of scandal. I lived it down then, and I can live it down now.

Also, I know this advice well from having ladled it out to others. I remember once in group therapy scolding a woman who had been a prominent leader in the community before she became addicted to opiates and attempted suicide. She was mortified at the idea that people would laugh and sneer, and that she might never regain her previous professional standing. I listened to her concerns, acknowledged that her case was special, and especially difficult. Then I told her what I believe to be the hard truth:

People will laugh. People will sneer. You will lose friendships and professional opportunities. On the whole, people will feel less sympathy for you than if you’d had a stroke or been in a car accident. No one wants to be a living illustration of the principle that mental illness strikes people of all class backgrounds and levels of education. You have two choices, and they both suck. You can either tell your story calmly and boldly, or you can creep around and let rumor do its work. In the end, the results may be the same. Some people who you trusted will disappoint you; others who you feared or disliked will amaze you. Mostly, it won’t come up. You’ll come back without fanfare, and most people will confine their comments to moments when you’re out of the room. You will survive, and it will be both easier and harder than you thought it would be.

I’ve lived this again and again, but the usual gap between what I know and what I feel remains. And some people’s well-intended efforts to cover for me still infuriate me beyond measure. After grad school I cut off a friend of 12 years when I found out that he had lied to my dissertation director during one major hospitalization, telling her that I’d collapsed from hunger. Apparently in his mind it was less shameful to have an eating disorder than to be bipolar.

In the end, the truth is easiest. In my ideal workplace, the program admin would send out a one-line email saying that I’d been hospitalized for depression. If I’d been in a car accident or had lost a parent, management would notify everyone briefly and ask for their understanding. Since it’s shameful to be mentally ill — right? — my absence will go unexplained, and unless I send out that email myself, I’ll return to the weird silence that tends to surround a mystery. Rumor will fill the vacuum.

No wonder I’m dismayed, then, when people try to reassure me by saying, “No one will know why you were out.” Actually, I’d rather people knew the truth. As it is, secrecy will tend to spread stigma, and I’m not such a raging activist that I’ll spend my first two weeks back at work launching preemptive strikes against prejudice. In the end, it’s another social puzzle that I feel ill-equipped to solve. It’s one of life’s more irritating ironies that when anything horrible happens to you — when you’re raped, bereaved, crippled, whatever — you will have to devote tremendous energy to helping other people feel comfortable about it.

I do feel better now.

Love to all.

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