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Mental Illness: Caution isn’t Stigma.

28 January 2015

As an alcoholic in what is generally considered long-term recovery, I don’t face much in the way of challenges with regard to people being suspicious of my sobriety. It’s been nearly seven years since I’ve had a drink, and I don’t miss it. My family seems to trust my sobriety. My partner has never seen me drink. Those few professional contacts who know I’m in recovery have no compunctions about collaborating with me. It helps that I don’t have a history of chronic relapse, so there’s no particular reason to suspect another one is just around the corner.

Alcoholism is a mental illness which requires lifelong care, treatment, and attention to remain in recovery. If I do not do the things I need to do to maintain my sobriety, I will drink again. Period. No question in my mind. And that terrifying prospect is always there for me, and can never be relieved. I must remain vigilant, or I will return to active alcoholism. And every alcoholic in long-term sobriety I have ever spoken to feels the same way. Almost invariably, alcoholics who declare themselves “cured” return to drinking.

And with regard to mental illnesses, alcoholism is not remarkable in that respect. Obviously, I’m not a medical professional and can’t speak to every type of mental illness, but many of them require lifelong maintenance, or medication, or therapy, to sustain remission. Maintenance that too often slips and results in relapse with terrible consequences.

When we talk about stigma, we often mean that mental illness is viewed as a moral weakness, and that fear of judgement causes many mentally ill individuals to eschew treatment, and suffer longer. And that sort of stigma does need to be addressed. Barriers to treatment are devastating however they manifest. Enormous good could be done by relieving the burden of social condemnation when it comes to treatment-seeking for alcoholism and other mental illnesses.

But being cautious, as an employer, partner, or friend of a mentally ill person is not stigma. Everyone has the right to protect themselves and their interests. And as I am an alcoholic, even though I am in recovery, it is not unreasonable to see me as an increased risk over a person who does not suffer from mental illness. As a partner, as an employee. This is because I represent an increased risk over a person who does not suffer from mental illness.

I don’t know how much of an increased risk. Maybe not a lot, at this point. But some. I have all the standard risks, plus this other horrifying (if, I believe, remote) possibility for harm. Were my employer to discover that I am an alcoholic, it would be perfectly reasonable for them to treat me with somewhat heightened scrutiny. I have a track record of drinking too much – and at inappropriate times – and behaving anti-socially. Now, as a new, sober track record is established, it’s appropriate to reduce and rescind that scrutiny, but just as I will always be at risk for relapse, there is no reason to expect an employer to entirely abandon caution.

We mentally ill should know and accept this. It does me no good to be indignant that someone would scrutinize me. The instant I puff out my chest and think, “I’m recovered! How dare they marginalize me!” I am falling into the trap of not respecting my own disease. Of developing resentments which derail and disrupt my sobriety. Acceptance is the only way to remain in a place of serenity. Personal affront is one step on the path to relapse.

So yes, relieving stigmas would be a good thing. And properly understanding the risks associated with employing or partnering with a person in recovery from a mental illness requires knowledge, and doing so requires courage. But it is not stigmatizing to exercise caution. It’s human. And appropriate. And you, the normal person, do not owe me anything. If my mental illness, recovery or not, causes you pain, anxiety, difficulty, or troubles? You can disassociate. Without having to justify yourself.

I am mentally ill. I am in remission from that illness, but I remain mentally ill. I will always be. And you don’t have to participate in my disease, or my recovery. That’s not stigma. That’s just life.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 January 2015 09:34

    OK, but an employer has to be careful not to fall into the trap of ‘mentally ill, therefore terrible employee’ trap. Because I am so open about my depression, I fear being unemployable. But at the same time, I hope that i’ve demonstrated commitment to speaking up about difficult things, self-awareness, and deepened empathy because I understand what a brain can inflict on a person. Those might be assets in some career paths (I don’t know which career paths, exactly, but I’m told these are valuable things from time to time…maybe people are just being nice…always my fear…getting the ‘good for you….’).

    Of course, it is up to each person to scrutinize anyone they have a relationship with and I don’t hold it against someone that rejects me because I’m a depressive (even though I think it’s amazing that I have learned to manage it so much better than I used to). I get it, but I also know that I can’t go back to viewing myself as valueless and an embarrassment of a human being taking up useful air someone else could use better (what I used to think, hard to build constructively from that mindset) , which is what rejection can cause; yes it’s catastrophizing one event and it’s not good to do that, but that is too often what my brain did when I was most depressed.

  2. 28 January 2015 09:45

    The main point I seem to have not made in my first comment: I hope employers are scrutinizing everyone they hire, though I hope I’m lucky enough (self-generated luck or truly serendipitous) to get the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to where ever I end up working. My goal is always to leave a project and place better than when I found it.

  3. 28 January 2015 13:42

    Hm, it sounds a little like you’re saying “discriminating against people with mental illness, should they choose to reveal it” is ok. :/

    • 28 January 2015 13:47

      No. I’m saying that reasonable scrutiny is not discrimination. And in fact might even be necessary for intervening early if relapse does occur.

  4. 29 January 2015 05:36

    I just disagree. I’m not in an emotional place right now (ironically) where I can discuss that disagreement, but I really strongly disagree on this one.

  5. Harold A. Maio permalink
    29 January 2015 22:57

    You call someone’s prejudice another person’s “stigma.” Others have done so in the past, you join a questionable group, to put it mildly..

  6. Syd permalink
    8 February 2015 15:39

    I’m glad that anonymity is so important in the rooms of AA and Al-Anon. I believe in all the hiring situations I know, one does not have to reveal a history with alcoholism or mental illness.

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