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  • Let me tell you my life story of mental illness and stigma.

    I have memories going back, back when I was too young to go to school. I was reading before I was out of diapers.

    I would sit on the living room floor surrounded by open books and encyclopedias. Other kids asked their parents why. I looked it up in books. My favourite was the encyclopedia with clear plastic plates that showed the inside of the human body. I wanted desperately to know how I worked, how other people worked, and what was inside them.

    I knew so much about human anatomy, but making friends with humans my own age was another matter. When i spoke, I used the words i knew from the encyclopedias. Other kids didn't understand me. They wanted to play with dolls, to skip, to play tag and hide and seek. I just wanted a book and a quiet corner. I remember in Grade One, kids whispering about me "that scientific kid" or "that girl who says all the big words". School was a bore. They were teaching the kids how to read and I had known for years.

    Sometimes in school I would put my head down on my desk in the middle of class and cry. I cried from fear. I cried from frustration. I cried from loneliness. I also often saw, heard or smelled things that frightened me. The school would call my mother (who stayed at home) and she would come to get me. All the way home I'd be lectured for faking illness, being lazy and not wanting to do my work. At home I'd be sent to my room, which was a blessing for me.

    Years passed, friendless years. Sometimes I'd have one friend, but then they would move away or just decide to be friends with one of my sisters instead, and I'd be alone again. I'd have crying attacks every so often and my irritated mother would demand to know what was making me cry. I couldn't tell her truthfully, I would just tell her I had no friends. She could never help with that. Other kids thought I was weird and I agreed with them. I spent my time alone reading or studying nature while they played games which seemed a waste of time to me. I learned that people didn't like me and could not be trusted.

    I did have a couple of friends - our cats. I was the family veterinarian and did all the claw-clipping, pill-administering, flea-bathing, holding the dog while he was being groomed. I'd spend my hours in my room with books and cats.

    It became time to go to university. This was a terrible time for me. I was in a big city and had never taken public transit in my life. I knew nobody. I was petrified to be in crowds, or large rooms full of people. Needless to say, I had no friends and no ability to make friends. My family couldn't be bothered with me, my parents never called me and I didn't call them because the long distance was too expensive.

    My only human contact was going to the department stores in the big mall downtown, and looking at makeup. I "befriended" a few of the sales girls. I became one of their best customers. I had all my student loan money for the year. The only times I felt happy were when I was buying makeup, or wearing it in various impeccable looks. It felt like a drug. To this day, I build a shield of makeup and wigs to hide behind when I go outside.

    In the end I spent all my money on makeup within 3 or 4 months, and I had to get a job so I could eat. I never made it to the end of university. I began having panic attacks when I went near the campus, and finally quit.

    More friendless years, but I did find a boyfriend with whom I had a child. Things ended between him and me, and I raised the child alone. Finally, a friend! But I treated her like too much of a friend and not so much a child. She turned on me when she became a teenager and began treating me abusively. I was too soft on her and didn't know what to do. I finally had to ask her to leave when she turned 18, had dropped out of school and had no job. She hates me now. I don't even know why. I haven't spoken with her in two years.

    My mother and the rest of my family don't speak to me anymore either. They are rich, I am poor. That's one thing. Another is that they think I am faking an illness and just looking to scam the system (and them) for free handouts.

    What illness am I faking? Well, throughout my life I have been in and out of various psychiatric offices. That's what happens when you don't fit in with humans. My experiences have varied from being molested by one psychiatrist while in my early teens, to being treated like a number, to being diagnosed with one disorder but told I had another. In the meantime I chose to medicate myself with alcohol, and after alcohol overdoses and suicide attempts I finally found a good hospital with a very effective mental health department. They looked up many of the records from the past, assessed me and I now know that my weirdness is called Bipolar 1 Disorder.

    I've since become sober, for almost two years now. I go to my treatments. I take my pills. I'm not medically fit to work anymore because my moods are too unstable, my disorder difficult to treat. But others, like my family, look at me and think "she's scamming... she's making it all up."

    But I never forget that I'm one of the lucky ones. I've got disability insurance, a place to live, food to eat. And I finally have some friends who can be trusted: two small dogs, and three cats, and my fish. But - I know I am one psychotic episode from the back of a police car and a jail cell.

    I know well, why so many mentally ill end up in jail or homeless. People can't be trusted.
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