by Joseph Merlin Bowers
Some years ago, I had the great good fortune to meet Dr. Fred Frese and watch him make a speech. At one point he asked, “Should you speak out about your mental illness?” He answered, “Yes, if you’re over 65 and retired.”
I realized that that was exactly what I was doing. I was scheduled to make a speech about my experiences with my disease later that day to that same group. I was over 65 and retired from a pretty good job. This would be the first voluntary speaking engagement of my life. I was scared to death but determined to go through with it.
In 1964 shortly after turning 17 in a state mental hospital in lower New York State, I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. More recently I have been diagnosed as bipolar 1 with psychotic features. For more than 20 years I experienced recurring psychotic episodes. I would get very delusional and experience grandiosity. Often I would have what Dr. Frese referred to as a messiah complex. Between episodes, I was as normal as I had ever been. If you only knew me between episodes, you would never guess I suffered from a serious mental illness.
My mother also had done time in the same mental hospital. These events were never spoken of by anyone in our family. I learned early on to keep quiet about it.
Keeping it secret, however, is impossible when one continues to have episodes. Over the years relationships were damaged, jobs were lost and opportunities missed because of episodes. They always seemed to occur at just the most God-awful times. (Is there a good time for one of these?)
Despite all this, I was able to marry, earn a BS. degree and perform pretty well at a variety of jobs. In 1981 I got a good job as a lab tech at a large power plant. At that time they didn’t ask about a mental illness history in the application form or the interview. Companies hadn’t yet started doing extensive background checks or personality profiles.
On the job i kept my dark history secret from everyone. Inevitably came an episode that resulted in my signing myself into a psych ward. My secret was out.
For the first time, an episode didn’t cost me my job. The company kept me on at my lab tech job. In nearly 30 years I never got a promotion though, possibly as a result. My job performance ratings were consistently exceptional.
When I retired and my three children were grown, out of the house and pretty self sufficient, I felt it safe to get serious about finishing a book about my experiences, among other things, trying to remember and relate just what was going on in my brain when I was psychotic. Eventually I self published this as an e-book.
Trying to promote this book got me steering a lot of conversations to the subject of mental illness. Almost always when I did this the person I was talking to would start telling me about a friend or relative with a mental illness or their own struggles with an illness or alcoholism or some such. People have been grateful to be able to speak openly without fear of judgement. Someone told me she could much better understand her sister-in-law after reading my book. People struggling with issues alone have sought help after talking with with me.
For these reasons and many, many more; I speak out at every opportunity now. I am, of course over 65 and retired. I have with my wife of more than 42 years raised our children. My friends know all about me and the bazaar sometimes dangerous things I’ve done when psychotic. They choose to remain my friends. I’ve literally got nothing to lose.
I believe it important that people realize that there are many of us successfully dealing with serious mental illnesses and leading productive rewarding lives.
People with little personal experience think of the scruffy homeless person they saw talking to no one they could see when they think of mental illness. They don’t think of people like me. They think of a Jared Lounger without realizing that he too is a victim of a badly broken system.
Many people with serious mental illnesses can live lives similar to mine given proper treatment. Virtually everyone can have the quality of his or her life improved with proper care.
The system is a terrible mess today with need of vast improvement. This will not happen so long as prejudice and discrimination are widespread. As is usually the case with prejudice and discrimination they are mostly the result of fear and ignorance. The only way to combat that is through people like me speaking out, I believe. Only when there is widespread demand for change will change occur.
So yes. I believe I should speak openly about my serious mental illness. Everyone who can do so fairly safely should do so. I don’t ask anyone to risk career or relationships, but the public can and need be enlightened.