My story of stigma began with two words: Naked Taser. I was twenty years old, sitting in a school cafeteria, and listening to a motivational speaker. I worked for a day camp that summer and had spent the day going over policy with the other staff. With ten minutes left to go, many of the other counselors were anxious to leave. The speaker anticipated this and saved his “best” lesson for last. He wrote NAKED TASER on the whiteboard and the level of interest in the room rose significantly. He told a story about a newspaper article he’d come across. A counselor at a sleep away camp upstate disappeared one night from his cabin. He was found a couple days later in public completely naked. When the police arrived they used a Taser to subdue him, hence the headline, “Naked Taser”. The speaker explained that this young man had Bipolar Disorder and experienced a manic episode. The moral of the story was that, as camp counselors, we should look out for each other and on that note we were dismissed.
I was glued to my seat for several minutes. Three weeks earlier I had been hospitalized and diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder after experiencing my first manic episode. This was my third summer as a counselor; surely I could still do my job. Yet I was stunned. What if I told a fellow counselor or my boss about my diagnosis? The first thing they would think would be those two words: Naked. Taser. Shakily I decided to confront the speaker and asked him if he thought that associating those words to Bipolar Disorder perpetuated stigma around the illness. He cut me off and said, “My sister has manic depression. I think I know what I’m talking about.”
I realized that my shame was impacting my recovery.
That summer was one of the hottest on record and, even though I was adjusting to medication that dehydrated my body, I toughed it out on the playground five days a week. There were days I would get sick from dehydration, but I was scared to tell anyone. By August I couldn’t take it anymore. I realized that my shame was impacting my recovery and I told my boss what was going on. In that moment, her compassion and comprehension were even greater than mine. I am grateful for her understanding that a new diagnosis is not something to be taken lightly and for her encouragement to do what was best for my health.
Two words were all it took to let fear of stigma hurt me. I’m sure the speaker had good intentions telling the Naked Taser story, but his telling was incomplete. In order to look out for each other’s health, we have to educate each other about mental illness—not with headlines, but with heart. Two words, whether it’s “Naked Taser” or “Bipolar Disorder”, do not tell the whole truth. We cannot let others speak those words in ignorance and I will never again let someone else’s words speak for me.