In this series on the academy and psychiatric disability (i.e., mental illness), I’ve written several essays that took on the issue of ableism and insensitivity in others. And, oh-so-predictably, in the posted comments and on Twitter, certain folks took those essays to mean that I’m either: (1) enforcing political correctness (rather than humaneness toward others), (2) infringing on their right to free speech (because apparently I’m the State and have the power to enforce speech laws), or (3) making a mountain out of a molehill because why would anyone get offended by being called “totally bipolar” or “schizo”?
OK. If any of those characterize your view, you can just stop reading now. You are not my audience here. This particular column is for readers who want to be friends with people with psychiatric disabilities (PPDs). You know, for people who want to be kind, thoughtful, and nice to people with psychiatric disabilities. Who don’t want to jerks. Therefore, if this does not sound like something that you want to be, just go away. I’m sure there’s a 4Chan someplace for people who agree with you.
Without further warning, then, here’s how to be an ally to friends who have psychiatric disabilities.
Here’s the scene. Your friend has disclosed to you privately that she has a mental illness, one that is permanent, with a lot of stigma attached to it—let’s say bipolar disorder. She tells you because she is your friend and wants to be honest and open about who she is. What do you do?
1. Keep her secret.
That should be obvious, but I have to say it anyway. Scientific research has shown that most Americans believe, without evidence, that people with major mental illnesses pose significant threats of violence. This irrational fear is one of the many reasons why PPDs face stigma when they disclose their disabilities.
Your friend has trusted you with a secret that could hurt her career, her friendships, and more—in ways that you can’t imagine. Keep her secret safe.
2. Don’t study her for symptoms.
Now that you know that your friend has bipolar disorder, you’re going to want to do what academics do: research. So get on PubMed and do some reading. Search other journals for articles by disability studies authors to educate yourself about ableism and PPDs. That’s all really great.
But you can’t turn your keen researcher’s eye upon your friend’s body, voice, and face and study her. She is not an object for you to learn from. Don’t examine her symptoms, waiting for her to do something “bipolar.” You would be objectifying her, which is weird and demeaning.
Plus, I can promise you, she’ll be able to feel your eyes studying her. She’ll be able to tell. And she’ll hate you for it.
3. Don’t ask her if she's “taken her meds.”
That happened to me once, shortly after I was diagnosed with my disability. I shared my secret with my best friend in the world, who was also my first roommate after college.
Shortly thereafter, we had a disagreement about something I can’t even remember now. She asked, in the heat of the disagreement, if I needed to take my medicine, as though the only reason I might be disagreeing with her was because I was unmedicated.
We’d been friends for many years at that point. That was the first time I’d felt betrayed by her. How could I trust someone who attributed my thoughts, my very observations about the world—especially the ones that disagreed with hers—to a broken brain?
4. Do remind your friend to take her medicine, if she asks you to.
Isn’t this the opposite of No. 3? No. The point is, your friend with bipolar disorder gets to decide—not you—who she talks with about her medicine. If she lets you into that circle of people, count yourself lucky. It’s a tiny group.
I was at an academic conference this past summer. Before I left, my husband hurt his hand badly. I was worried about leaving him at that point but ultimately decided to attend the meeting. Then, once my colleague, Ariane (a pseudonym), and I arrived at the conference hotel, I got a call from my husband. His hand was worse, and he was headed to an emergency doctor. Being me, and knowing what I know about his injury, I was thinking of compartment syndrome, of amputation. And pretty soon I wasn’t thinking at all.
If I’d been at home, I would have been advocating for my husband, ensuring he got the best medical care. But there I was, out of state at a stupid academic conference and completely unable to help. Paralyzed. Panicked. Tortured. Frozen.
Ariane is someone I trust. She knows me, and she knows about my disability. She has my permission to help care for me, even when that care includes talking about my medication. She said to me, “You need to take [insert specific drug name here], and you need to eat. Let’s make that happen.” So we did.
I calmed down, my body relaxed—after receiving its first real meal of the day—and a couple of hours later my husband called telling me that the treatment he received worked. Everything would be OK with his hand.
If you are lucky enough to be given the level of trust by your own friend that I give to Ariane, you are lucky indeed. I count myself lucky, too. Ariane might very well save my life some day.
5. Do ask if there are situations that are hard for your friend because of her disability, and then be sensitive to those situations.
This rule calls upon all of your empathetic reserves.Be warned: It’s going to be hard sometimes. Your friend may need your help at unpredictable moments and in unpredictable ways. Part of having a psychiatric disability means that sometimes a person’s brain can react in unexpected ways to stimuli—unexpected even to the person with the disability. Here’s an example.
Recently, I had to host and give a talk at a colloquium. Like most of you, I’ve given dozens of talks. This day shouldn’t have been a big deal. Indeed, that very morning, I ran into a former student of mine, and she asked me if I was nervous about my talk. I actually told her, “I don’t get nervous.” But a confluence of circumstances caused me to eat those words. I didn’t get nervous in the way that most people would recognize—no sweaty palms or shyness. Instead, I felt panicked, as though there were an assassin in the building trying to kill me, but I didn’t know who it was. Being there became physically painful.
Now, I did my level best to make sure that no one knew that I felt that way. And I’m sure that anyone who was there and is reading this now would think that this sort of reaction—the pain of panic—at my own colloquium is a little nuts.
Guess what. “Nuts.” Correct. Even I couldn’t have predicted that I’d have this reaction. But I had it nonetheless: hands shaking, blurting out inappropriate words now and then (fortunately not into the microphone), forgetting guests’ names, and generally losing my cool in unexpected ways. I warned the two people who knew anything about my disability that I was feeling this way. They covered for me as best they could. Sat next to me at the dinner. Gave the opening and closing remarks solo while I stood silent, pretending that this was the plan all along.
Believe me—if I weren’t the host—heck, if my talk weren’t the second-to-last one of the entire day—I would have claimed a stomach virus and left early. Instead, I was trapped in a room where I felt as though my skin were being pulled off in strips, and slowly.
I hosted the colloquium. I gave my talk. It was torture, but I did my job.
The only thing—the only thing—that could possibly help me through something like that is a friend by my side, whispering in my ear, You will be OK. You will be OK.
You have a chance to be that friend.