"How Stigma Has Made Me Who I Am": Miranda De Barra Talks About Living With Bipolar Disorder
When we talk about stigma, we are talking about using negative labels to identify people with mental health problems.
Many people hold negative opinions towards people with mental health problems because they do not understand the issues involved and are relying on myths and misconceptions.
Miranda de Barra is an inspirational speaker and mental health blogger. A champion speaker with Time To Change UK and a Mental Health Ambassador for See Change, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1998.
Here, in a powerful post, Miranda talks about the stigma she has experienced from living with a mental illness. Some people may find this post triggering.
February 1998. Shell-shocked after a nervous breakdown. I receive my mental illness diagnosis. I have bipolar disorder.
I emerged from psychiatric hospital on the wobbly new-born legs of a new identity. Mentally Ill. For life. I had crossed that big fat safe line between “us” - the sane, and “them” - the mad. I was one of "them". I lost my glamorous, well paid job in the West End of London in artist management. I was only 25.
Blinking in the blinding darkness of depression, I yo-yoed around on psychiatric medicines. I went to my GP in utter confusion wanting help. I remember her words to this day, they still cut to my soul.
“You just went mad” she said.
She gave me anti-depressants but they didn't touch the place I descended to next. I remember banging my head against a wall not long after that. The physical pain soothed the searing agony of confusion in my head.
A month or so later, I tried to throw myself back into my old life. I was offered a job at another major talent agency in the West End. I thought I would have a reason to live again.
The night before I was due to start, my new boss rang me up. He started shouting and swearing at me. He asked “when the f&*k” would I have told him about my breakdown, I was not fit to work in his firm. I stood there, shaking, holding the phone like my final lifeline. I apologised. I told him it I was going to be fine. I tried to sound calm and professional whilst in reality I died slowly. He hung up on me. The West End world of showbiz is tiny. Word was out. I was finished. My world shattered around me.
A month later, I tried to rebuild a social life. I had been hermetically sealed away in depression for months and I thought if I tried to reach out to old friends I would be OK. So, I decided to have a birthday party.
A friend, who had also been a client, responded with extreme anger. She found out that in hospital I had phoned another client to explain my leaving. She said she couldn't believe that I was just casually trying to invite her to my birthday after hearing nothing from me since my disappearance. I stopped trying to invite anyone to a birthday party. There was no party at all.
I applied for work in other areas of the industry. I hoped my story wouldn't be known. I found work on the crew of a TV series, low paid, unimportant and inconspicuous. I remember pottering past the chief executive with whom I had once wrangled big money contracts How mortifying it would be for him to recognise me. I just shuffled in the shadows hiding from my hideous history.
In 1999 I escaped to Ireland. Initially, I didn't tell people about my illness. But word got out after I was admitted to Tralee General. There were many negative reactions to me. A mother said she would not want me driving her kids in my car. There were some friends who saw me in crisis before their eyes once, but wrote me off as looking for attention and causing drama for the sake of it. I lost a relationship with a guy who was too embarrassed by my illness to stand by me at all when I got ill.
I got a new boyfriend and at least two people felt duty bound to warn him. One walked up to him saying “You do know she's completely mad, don't you ?” Luckily he married me anyway. That person apologised to him afterwards – but never to me. That hurt.
In 2013 I had another major depressive episode which lasted months. For nearly a year I withdrew. But during this hibernation a mysterious, almost esoteric “caterpillar thing” happened. I changed. I don't really know how or when exactly. I have always found myself trapped in a straight-jacket. Sixteen years of stigma, ten horrible life-mutilating hospital admissions, the daily roller-coaster of completely unpredictable extreme mood and energy swings, debilitated by the exhaustion of insomnia, sleeping pill hangovers and daily medication.
So I decided I would no longer be afraid and try to choose who to trust. I would tell everyone, and wait to see who chose to trust me. I came out publicly on Facebook and the positive support which met me was overwhelming.
People say how strong and brave I am. I think it is precisely because of the years of opposition and suppressive stigma I have faced that I actually found this courage. When I was depressed and afraid I certainly had none. Only I have the power to change my mind, only I have the power to change my world and how I live in it. So I can be the risk taker if I want to, throw my straight-jacket to the wind and let it fall where it may.
The me that once sat quivering in the corner of the locked solitary confinement room, or held down kicking and screaming by four nurses and forcibly sedated with a massive needle, that once hid in unwashed pyjamas and a dirty dressing gown - the belt taken away by the nurses because “ I pose a risk to myself and other patients” - that petrified young woman never dreamed that she would ever feel worthwhile again.
But every snarl of stigma has dissolved into air. Every whip which has ever thrashed me with condemnation and every fence which has ever held me in lies burning.
I've started a bonfire. Stigma is powerless ash at my feet and the air is sweet with the peaceful joy of solidarity, acceptance, patience, forgiveness and truth.