DEAR ABBY: I am a 20-year-old woman who enjoys singing, crafts and working with children. I appear normal and I'm almost always pleasant. Why do I make that statement? Because I have a mental illness, and there is still a stigma. People sometimes feel uneasy when with me. While over the years the stigma has lessened, it still remains to some degree. I have been treated like a child, been the topic of gossip, lost friends in the church, and have been feared and ostracized because of my illness.
After a few dates with a man, I feel I must disclose that I have some emotional problems -- including bipolar disorder. My date invariably reacts like he's trapped in the car with a rabid animal. Abby, I am NOT crazy, dangerous or contagious! The men I date don't have to be afraid of me. However, when the truth comes out, my gentlemen friends run like scared rabbits. It's very hurtful. I want to be treated with understanding and respect, not punished for an illness I didn't ask for.
How nice it would be to have a male friend who doesn't back away because of misinformation about mental disorders. Please ask your readers to give people with mental illness time to prove they are not monsters, just people who, for the most part, lead normal lives and have needs, wishes and feelings like everyone else. -- HOPEFUL IN VIRGINIA
DEAR HOPEFUL: It is true that many people are still ignorant about mental illness, and therefore harbor stigmatizing attitudes about it. It's ironic because one of the most widely prescribed medications in this country is Prozac.
In your zeal to be up-front, it's possible that you are telling your male friends too soon about your bipolar disorder. It might be wiser to wait until they get to know you better before disclosing that fact -- at which time you can recommend they read one or two excellent books about bipolar that are available in paperback: "An Unquiet Mind" by Kay Redfield Jamison and "A Brilliant Madness" by Patty Duke and Gloria Hochman. Both illustrate that, with treatment, a person with bipolar disorder can be productive and successful.
You are obviously intelligent and well-educated. You are in a unique position to educate others about mental illness -- and if you do so, it will go a long way toward helping you to feel stronger and more self-confident.
A therapist recently told me about a patient who got her church to start a committee on mental health. Then she asked the minister to feature mental illness at one of his sermons in his "day of caring" series, which featured topics like homelessness and migrant workers. Before the sermon, she stood up in front of the congregation and shared her own succesful treatment story. The therapist attended the services, too, and was available to answer questions between services. What a noble way to use the pulpit -- not only to educate the congregation, but also to advocate for enlightenment on a subject where not enough light has yet been reflected.
DEAR ABBY: I had to smile when I read the letter from "Stephanie in Delaware," about how an unexpected compliment in her ninth-grade math class made a difference in her life. It brought back a memory from my school days back in the '50s.
By far the best compliment I ever received, and one I'll remember the rest of my life, was from my ninth-grade music teacher. He reached out one day and took hold of my ear, wiggled it gently and said, "Don't ever lose that ear -- it's worth a million bucks!"
My teacher's name was Henry Brubeck (older brother of jazz great Dave Brubeck). -- DAVID S. OLSEN, LOMPOC, CALIF.
DEAR DAVID: He not only had an ear for music, he had perfect pitch with words.
For an excellent guide to becoming a better conversationalist and a more attractive person, order "How to Be Popular." Send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $5 (U.S. funds only) to: Dear Abby Popularity Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)
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