It would be no exaggeration to say that I have been at the wrong end (if there is a wrong end) of discrimination too many times to mention. As a child, particularly in secondary school, there was religious discrimination and then when I left school I was barred from the career I wanted because of political discrimination rising from the religion my family practised. As I got older and my mental health suffered discrimination because of that began to dog my every footstep. As a person who could not be described as shy and retiring I decided to always be up front about having Bipolar Disorder and refused to be shamed into silence.
As time passed it became clear that there are people who genuinely don’t care what diagnosis you’ve been labelled with and see the person behind the the symptoms. This is rarer than it should be but inspires hope within me and instills me with a courage to keep on fighting discrimination. One of my friends once told me that had they thought about the illness first and the person second then they would have missed out on a lot of love. I met the people who would welcome and use words that misled me into thinking that they could be sincere until I saw that the sincerity didn’t reach their eyes. Slowly it chipped away at my self-esteem until I found myself in a position where I believed I had to nothing to offer and deserved the little pity I got from all of the bad relationships be they work, personal or otherwise that I’d ever had.
Discrimination doesn’t sting and wound on any single occasion, it burns souls and erodes self-respect. As a person with Bipolar I I have difficulty believing in the talents I have as the illness makes me question everything so discriminatory behaviour underlines those doubts and reinforces my own negativity. Within my own head I can fight the negativity but it’s almost impossible to do so with people because every action can and will be put down to poor mental health by people who don’t count and whose opinions shouldn’t matter.
Recently I’ve been doing some volunteer work with a long established charity. To begin with it was really good and structures were outlined to help establish boundaries. I had quite a wide brief to start with that became narrower and narrower as the weeks went by. I had a sneaking suspicion that I was being not too subtly shoved sideways out of the door but there wasn’t anything I could put my finger on. I question everything that I feel to the point of over analysis at times because I try not to be over sensitive and just roll with things. Sometimes I manage to do this and other times I don’t but it’s important to know that I’d be like this with or without Bipolar Disorder, it’s just me.
Some things bothered me from the start but being new to this particular place and not one for forcing confrontation (though I’ll give all I’ve got if confronted) I pushed those things to one side. Looking back at them it was obvious that things weren’t right. Lack of supervision, protocols and structures not adhered to as I was given to think they would be. I began to feel as though I was a commodity and not a person. What I do takes time and effort that I don’t always have to spare. If I do one thing then another doesn’t get done as I have problems with time management and limited personal resources. As a photographer I can spend an hour taking photos and then two hours editing them. It’s difficult trying to get that across to people who just don’t understand that taking photos to a decent quality is not just a matter of point and shoot, it involves skill and can be very hard work. People in general just don’t get the idea of copyright and this was a stumbling block from the start. In a place where they don’t get the concept of crediting individual photos (not their policy so sod copyright law) and instead give an airy wave type credit it is incredibly frustrating. It also devalues what you are trying to do as it appears to assume that it doesn’t really matter if people don’t know which is your work.
It became obvious that there was a hierarchy within the group of people that I was associated with and that there was sharing of information that shouldn’t have been shared. I realise that I should have spoken up but when you’re openly honest about having a major mental health problem you are wary of speaking of things that making you uncomfortable because it is all to easy to stir people into using words like “paranoia” when speaking about you. It’s oppression of a sort and discrimination in that you are not allowed the freedom to express thoughts that would be accepted from someone without the mental health problem.
Perhaps I like things a little too clear cut and my relationships, be they work or play, a little too open for some people but it became clearer and clearer that I wasn’t as happy there as I should be and had made the decision to lead one last project and fade away. Except that things happened that removed me from the place rather suddenly and of course it has ended badly.
The project I had nurtured had decisions made about it without my consultation, questions were asked as to whether I would be stable enough many months later and if it would interfere with the project and I felt quite bullied about it. After the incident one of the women, who had given me a gift just two days before, stopped speaking to me and has not spoken to me since. I immediately raised the matter with the person concerned who claimed she didn’t know what she’d done wrong. Both her and a person who witnessed the conversation said during interviews afterwards that my health wasn’t mentioned. I mean, who is going to take the word of a mental woman seriously? Between the incident and the interview to state my concerns the people concerned had lots of time to talk to one another and I don’t doubt for a second that they agreed to deny the discriminatory component.
During the interview to discuss my concerns I raised concerns about the confidentially of conversations I’d had with my supervisor, asked specifically for an explanation of why the woman (a member of staff) had suddenly stopped speaking to me and why I had received generally inadequate supervision during my time there. To me these were three vital points and concerned me because I felt as though I was being treated as a second class citizen. I have yet to receive any answerz and since the matter is now considered closed then I will never have an answer. If there was no cliques, no agreed silences and no discrimination then there would have been answers, of that I am sure. Silence speaks volumes.
One thing both women raised was that I had attended the meeting where I was questioned about my health in an “agitated” state because someone had been rude to me earlier that day. I felt as though the stability of my state of mind was questioned and very unfairly. Apparently Bipolar Disorder robs me of the normal range of emotions that other people experience and that any irritation or anger I express is an indication of poor mental health.
Perhaps, if it had been considered carefully, putting me in a box, stereotyping me, labelling me and trying to define me by a diagnosis was a stupid idea. It reinforces the opinion I have that these people were discriminating against me. Pointing fingers in such a blatant fashion is irresponsible, childish and outs the people as discriminators. Lying about events does not prove that discriminatory behaviour didn’t occur but it does make what should be safe places unsafe. If you cannot feel comfortable because you feel judged then you are not safe. There is no greater abuse of people with mental health problems that using the information that they impart against them and using it badly at that. It is, as is any act of discrimination, the act of a powerless coward.
Discrimination will continue as long as people feel the need to bolster their own inadequacies by attempting to patronise those they feel superior to. Telling someone they are talented, amazing and valuable with fingers crossed behind the back is shallow and unintelligent. It is better to be honest and admit unease with a situation and an inability to handle it than to practise discrimination because you don’t have the depth of thinking to have any real understanding. Like a lot of prejudiced people claims of “I can’t be discriminating because my family/friends etc. have had mental health problems in the past” were bandied about. It doesn’t wash, it doesn’t even get as far as the laundry basket.
It must be easier for some people to write off others because they don’t or can’t understand but asking and learning to understand actually helps reduce personal shortcomings. Growth as a person isn’t restricted to those of us who admit openly to being flawed or imperfect it’s the right thing for everybody to pursue and in that way we would have at least a chance of reducing discrimination. In the meantime I’ll continue to speak out and be labelled, at times, as paranoid. If I stay silent I’m allowing discrimination to occur, if I speak up it will happen a lot anyway so I’m not losing a thing by standing up to be counted. And what if I am the mad woman in the attic? I’m the mad woman in the attic who has a voice and uses it.