Mental Illness: Caution isn’t Stigma.
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.