On Monday Anderson Cooper from CNN interviewed Mental Health Advocate and Clinical Psychologist Pat Deegan. Pat, who also lives with schizophrenia, created a “hearing voices” simulator that Anderson experimented with. For 45 minutes one day he wore the IPOD that cranked voices into his ears. As part of the experiment he had to do puzzles and a math quiz while wearing the ear buds. If you are interested you can watch the interview with Anderson Cooper and Pat Deegan on CNN. It was fascinating to hear how much difficulty he had trying to complete tasks and it even affected him while walking down the street.
Since I have experienced a few psychotic episodes as a result of bipolar mania I was really glad to know this simulation existed. It is one thing to try and explain what “hearing voices” is like and another to have someone deal with hearing voices. I hope more people will have access to the simulator; especially people in the media who tend to cover mental illness only when a tragedy occurs.
Even though I want the media to better understand mental illness I still contend that one of the best ways to combat stigma is for those of us who live with a mental illness to continue to speak out about our experiences. Sometimes I forget that I live with and write about mental illness everyday. I have been a student of bipolar illness for the past 30 years. Not necessarily by choice but by necessity. My point is the words and their definitions come relatively easy to me.
Speaking My Truth
About a month ago I was reminded that not everyone knows or understands what a person who lives with bipolar disorder goes through. I was giving an old friend of mine a ride to the airport and he ask me why I wasn’t working in the profession I had been in for 18 years. At first I hesitated and then I decided I was going to speak my truth.
I said, “Well I’m not working in the biotech industry anymore, because when I had a bipolar depressive episode the company I was working for fired me while I was on disability leave.”
Jim replied, “That’s terrible. If you were depressed it must have been more depressing to get fired in the middle of being sick.”
“Yeah it was pretty bad. Right around Christmas time too.”
Jim looked at me and then asked, “What is bipolar disorder anyhow?
“It’s an illness where you experience extreme highs and lows and sometimes psychosis,” I was giving him the shorthand version of the illness.
“Psychosis is when you see or hear things that other people don’t see or hear. Or you may get delusional believing things that are otherwise not true.”
Jim looked at me kind of strangely and then said, “Well sorry for asking so many questions I guess I just don’t understand. I’m really trying to understand.”
I was really pleased he took an interest and was willing to have a dialogue about mental illness. I assured him it was no problem and he could ask me anything he wanted about bipolar disorder.
We rode in an awkward silence for a few minutes and then moved on to a different subject. Even though I admit feeling somewhat anxious I felt really proud of myself for having the courage to be open and honest. I figured the worst that could happen is I would lose a friend, and I already knew how to deal with that.
So I am a big proponent of more people understanding mental illness and especially showing compassion to those of us who live with it everyday. I have always been an Anderson Cooper fan, but now I like him even more. I hope he continues to do more segments on mental illness. The more people talk about it the better chance we all have in breaking down the stigma barriers.