National Alliance on Mental Illness
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On My Mind: Distinguishing Scars
By Melody Moezzi
I’ve been sick in the head and gut nearly half my life. Both my brain and my pancreas have turned on me on countless occasions: my brain with its tendency toward extreme, often excruciating moods, and my pancreas with its perilously placed benign tumor resulting in major surgery, chronic pain and a low-fat, low-sugar, low-fun diet.
Despite my many hospitalizations and frequent doctor visits, it took more than ten years for doctors to notice that, in many ways, my pancreas was the least of my problems. When you have a serious physical disease, especially one that’s nearly killed you, it’s quite common for any underlying mental illness to go undiagnosed and therefore, untreated. Mine did. Still, I can’t blame the doctors for missing it. My visceral issues were pretty damn pressing and maddening in and of themselves.
It turns out, the pancreas happens to be an especially sensitive organ. So much so, that one of the top three rules of any surgical residency, after “Eat when you can” and “Sleep when you can,” is “Don’t mess with the pancreas.” So, although my pancreatic surgery was ultimately a success, it was far from a pleasurable experience. I’ve been hospitalized at least a dozen times before and since thanks to the recalcitrant organ, and every such hospitalization has brought its fair share of pain, anxiety and indignation. But never outright fear or shame.
I wish I could say the same for my mental illness. All of my pancreatic troubles combined have been a cakewalk compared to the psychiatric ones. None of my physical pain has ever come close to the pain I’ve experienced courtesy of my chronically bipolar mind. You’d think that being blessed with an incredibly supportive family made up of physicians who required no convincing that bipolar disorder is a serious disease, I’d be capable of shaking off the fact that the rest of the world has not been nearly as accepting or considerate. You’d think that as an Iranian American Muslim woman who grew up in Ohio, I’d be sufficiently accustomed to prejudice or stigma to care less what anybody else thought. You’d think that as an outspoken human rights activist and attorney, I’d be able to immediately view society’s discrimination against the mentally ill as yet another human rights issue to latch onto. But I wasn’t.
Rather, I was ashamed and scared out of my mind, which was especially disconcerting because I’ve never been easily frightened or intimidated, let alone shy. I make my living as a public speaker. I’ve repeatedly appeared on live television and radio before millions of viewers and listeners. And, I’ve received death threats with pride and intrepidity for God’s sake. In short, it takes a hell of a lot to scare or embarrass me. So, the dread and disgrace I experienced when I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder was entirely new territory for me.
I wasn’t used to whispering anything, ever, but after my diagnosis, I suddenly felt compelled to lower my voice and even my head. That is, until I decided to “come out” by publicly writing and speaking about my mental illness.
Still, while I am no longer any more embarrassed to have bipolar disorder than I am to have a dysfunctional pancreas, I’ve found that I am in the minority here, and it’s not hard to see why. To publicly admit that you have a mental illness is to invite some serious backlash. I get emails from strangers chastising me for promoting false propaganda, for even calling bipolar disorder a disease, as opposed to a moral or spiritual failure. I’ve had my personal and professional credibility questioned for both having and openly claiming the disease.
But no one has ever accused me of propagandizing or attacked my character for admitting I’ve had a pancreatic tumor. Something about the giant scar across my stomach makes my tumor real to the world. Yet, it is often the invisible scars that prove to be the most real and insidious for all of us, and no matter how much or how loudly I voice my activism, I am no exception.
Melody Moezzi is a writer, attorney, speaker, activist and award-winning author. She is also the Executive Director of the non-profit interfaith organization, 100 People of Faith.