Editor’s Note: Moving Beyond Ablesism is a quarterly column featuring the work of the Anabaptist Disabilities Network (ADNet) www.adnetonline.org and offers reflections from different authors on the various issues facing persons with disabilities.
By Ezekiel Lee
Jesus called His followers to embrace a message of hope and love. A lifestyle in which we shrink margins, practice restoration, and embrace healing. This is the very essence of peacemaking. A desire and thirst to move towards what is better, to move towards inclusion, and to practice empathy. It is a climate in which investment in the souls of individuals trump their differences. This message also has been sadly missing throughout much of my life as I have struggled with profound mental illness.
The thought will forever be emblazoned in my mind. Me, the awkward 16 year old, just starting grade 10, and with a recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder. To be honest, at 16, the term “bipolar” sounded like a death sentence. On the one hand, I was relieved to know that these endless days of intense depression followed by a period of shifting elation and hyperactivity could soon be combated; but in the moment, all I could feel was a profound sense that I had done something wrong, that I deserved this life, and that I would never amount to anything.
I began seeing a psychiatrist. She was young, inexperienced, and just a bit brusque. Although pretty on the outside, she made me feel very small with her insistence that I would never amount to anything without the use of medications. That I would never be able to have a family or get married because I was too unstable, that this disorder would wreak havoc on my professional and personal life. She doubted my ability to pursue higher education, my ability to date, and my ability to handle my emotions. Hearing her say all of these things, after already feeling the weight of the new diagnosis made me even more anxious and resentful.
I began taking medication. The combination of negative side effects coupled with my ever growing desire to prove this psychiatrist wrong eventually led me to stop taking them. That struggle – first developed due to a nagging professional – has led me down the slope of being rather ambivalent towards medications, often starting and then abruptly stopping, much to the chagrin of subsequent doctors and counsellors.
I grew up in a very emotionally detached family. Although both my parents are very loving, their relationship with me and with each other has often been withdrawn, devoid of any intense feelings. My Asian mother found cultural solace in the concept that there was no need to discuss anything that would portray our family in a negative light. Asians, she reminded me, have no time for such things as mental illness. Mental illness, she insisted, can easily be solved by “snapping out of it,” forgetting or else denying that a problem does indeed exist, and simply plunging oneself into working hard and attempting to add more things to one’s schedule so that we won’t have time to continue thinking of the path we are going down.
With stigma comes an inevitable weight of shame. A weight that no one, especially a 16 year old, should have to carry. As months turned into years, I began a steady road to healing and recovery. Although bipolar is an illness that I will have for the rest of my life and I have come to accept it, I have learned that this does not limit my ability to positively impact the world.
Through gracious mentorship, generous counselling, prayer, and supportive doctors, I have learned that although I cannot change my diagnosis, I can try to have a happier outlook on life and not let it hinder my desires for marriage, a family, or further schooling. With this new outlook, I have been able to finish off my master’s degree (and will eventually pursue my PhD). I’ve been able to buy my first car, work with adults who have developmental disabilities, and form satisfying friendships. Actually, my life is quite normal. I have my challenges for sure, and my professors have mostly been understanding of that, but I am still capable and expected to do the same amount of work, to socially function the same way in society, and to pursue the same dreams as everyone else my age.
People who have bipolar, or a host of other mental illnesses, can often be misunderstood, marginalized, or ignored. Sadly, I have experienced unprofessional disclosure, teasing, and even suggestions that I may be demonized. I have had well-meaning Christians suggest I should simply pray more or have more faith. I even have had people suggest that I NOT enter leadership positions because I may get out of hand. What these people are failing to understand is that peace building begins right here, with us. It begins by understanding and embracing those who are different from us, all the while noticing that they really are not so different after all.
Ezekiel Lee is the pen name of a writer who prefers to remain anonymous.