When I started writing the essays that became the solo show, that I hope will be a finished memoir one day soon, I couldn’t help being raw, telling the ragged edged truth. Still I was missing a topic sentence, an announcement of what kind of work this was.
So I chose a box I had been labeled. It was the most stigmatized box. It was the least scary (to me).
In many ways categorizing myself as a writer of mental illness gave me the freedom to tell stories of trauma. It’s not that I don’t have a mental illness. I have bipolar disorder. It’s that, for me, having bipolar disorder is intimately connected to having post-traumatic stress disorder.
This is validated by recent research out of Australia published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The research states that experiencing gender-based violence (rape, stalking, sexual abuse, domestic violence, etc) is “significantly associated” with experiencing severe mental illness such as mood disorders. As with most ground-breaking research this isn’t a shock to folks on the ground.
Still it’s important reality to establish, especially in a reductive, medical-model mental health system. But for today, that mental health system is not my topic. Today I’m taking on ground much closer to home. Why would I avoid the post-traumatic stress disorder label with a vengeance yet embrace the bipolar label?
Because arguing I have a mental illness even though I do many things “the poor, disabled people” aren’t supposed to be able to do I’ve tried to expand the ground all people with psychiatric disabilities have to stand on. One of the things that my tagline relentlessly true stories is about is telling about reality so that we can all have ground to stand on.
I didn’t consciously choose to label my work as about mental illness instead of sexual violence. I chose mental illness because it was the only way I could do the writing at that time. This is a different time. It’s five plus years later. Even the scientists acknowledge a link between what they’ve classified as gender-based violence and poor mental and physical health.
What I’m writing about here is a bigger tent. I’m wishing for a mental illness community that is more aware of sexual violence and its connection to mental health or rather lack thereof.
I’m sure there’s something in this post that won’t sit well with all contingents of my audience. I know many in the anti-violence world want to avoid any conflation with mental illness because they don’t want to be labeled crazy and dismissed. I hear you. This is nuanced, tricky ground, and yet I’m addressing it in 500 words. I welcome your comments. I want to hear objections anticipated or not. I want to start a conversation in the mental health world about how expecting women’s mental illness to be the same in cause and treatment as men’s does a disservice to everyone. This means I want to see mental health centers more cognizant of the signs of PTSD, more cognizant of the fact that those who have been previously victimized are more likely to be so again. This is also to acknowledge the reality that men and boys can be and are victims of sexual violence.
But mostly this is yet another coming out post. Yes, I have a mental illness. Yes, my work is about the aftereffects of violence.