This essay offers an alternative viewpoint to an earlier piece, Jesse Jackson, Jr. is Entitled to His Privacy for Treatment of Mental Illness.
There are a lot of things in my life I don’t tell people about. I suppose we’re all like that to some degree. Maybe we’re ashamed of something we’ve done. Maybe it’s so intensely personal an experience that we feel like it’s nobody’s business but ours.
Maybe somebody hurt us so badly that they made us ashamed of what and who we are. We hurt from the core of our being, outward and inward both.
If you’re lucky, that third one never happened to you. All of those scenarios have happened to me. And I have paid, and continue to pay, and likely will pay to the end of my days, the price for something I didn’t even bring on myself.
I live in Rochester, Minn., home to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. It is a true gift, when you are (as the doctors like to call me) “medically complex,” to live two miles up the street from cutting-edge care. I joke — blackly — that I should pay rent to Mayo instead of to my landlords for all the time I spend there making use of all that expertise.
The better part of my time there is spent in the psychiatry department.
Go ahead: Cough. Laugh nervously. Make the “jokes” about being crazy. People treat psych patients like they’re contagious. I suspect it’s because you all know you could be me very easily. See, psych stuff is part genetics and part environmental. Neither of those things is contagious. The environment can trigger the genetics — via various forms of abuse (substance included), but honest — you aren’t going to catch my bipolar disorder by chatting with me over a cup of coffee (or a Packers game and a beer!).
And that really is what I’m all about here. I try to be open because it needs to happen. I’m deep into my 40s and have dealt with mental health issues since age 13 or so. People need to see the face of serious and persistent mental illness. They need to see we are writers and doctors and farmers; we love football, have a weakness for ice cream, you know? We’re just people. We have an extra struggle or two more to get through life than you do, but we’re not aliens.
I bring all this up because of the issues surrounding Jesse Jackson Jr. It was disclosed the other week that he’s here at the Mayo psych hospital receiving treatment for depression. I have done my share of time in that place. I can assure you he’s not having the time of his life. But in spite of it, I believe that he — not his spokesman — needs to step up and use the platform he has to speak out for the millions of Americans who suffer from depression, and bipolar, and myriad other mental illnesses.
To her credit, Jackson’s wife, Sandi, finally provided some missing details. Among them: He did not attempt suicide and is not being treated for substance abuse. But, Sandi Jackson said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, he had become “completely debilitated” by a depressive episode.
The Sun-Times article goes on to say that after initially visiting George Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C., Jackson’s brother Yusuf took him to a treatment center in Arizona known for specializing in mental health. The transfer to the Mayo Clinic came after the idea arose that the depression could be related to dietary issues from weight loss surgery. (Mayo is known for handling patients’ physical and psychiatric issues in the same visit, whenever possible.)
Believe me, I understand the Congressman is not feeling well. You don’t end up as a psych inpatient if you’re not severely ill. Sandi Jackson said that although his appetite has returned, “he’s still very depressed.” But I’d still like to see a quote from him — something he actually said, not something his relatives said or his spokesman manufactured. By not doing so, he’s perpetuating the stigma and the shame, and it doesn’t belong there. We need those walls to come down, not be built higher.
I know I’m not a famous politician, but I can talk forever about my lifelong experiences with my disease, and so I try to. The ones who suffer need to know they don’t do so alone. The ones who think it’s catching need to be taught that it’s not, and to offer a little compassion instead of a cough and a nervous laugh.
You wouldn’t be doing that if I told you I had lung cancer, which is no more contagious than mental illness. Why are you doing that to me?
An earlier version of this post originally appeared at The Journal of Humanitarian Affairs on Aug. 3, 2012.