My friend Dyane Harwood’s recent post A Stigma of One’s Own got me thinking. Dyane takes issue with the non-profit foundation A Room of Her Own (AROHO) for describing Virginia Woolf’s suicide as “took her own life” and for not mentioning her mental illness. I support Dyane for challenging them to rework Woolf’s bio. At the same time, I wonder…
Is it stigma to not mention that Virginia Woolf had mental illness (or had been sexually abused, for that matter)? Is that Woolf’s legacy? Was she not far more than her illness, as are we?
Here’s what I’ve been debating: removing my tagline, keeping references to bipolar in my bio and in my story, but not “limiting” my identity to someone living with bipolar or to being a mental health advocate.
I want to just write, to create art, to have that room of my own. Perhaps we need that locked door. Perhaps that metaphor can include, for some, privacy. Perhaps our illness does not limit us creatively, even as we struggle at times. Perhaps privacy is not stigma. Perhaps, for some, it is respect, it is a lock on a door which only the author, the artist, can open.
Thank you, Susan. My bio is similarly worded.
I like your perspective on this topic. We are not defined by our illness unless we want to be. Bipolar Disorder is just one part of who I am. It has helped shape how I view and participate in this world, but I am so much more. I’d have to double check, but I think my bio reads “I’m a wife, mother, educator, mental health advocate and I have Bipolar.” I know, a bit wordy. I’m starting to ramble. I’ll stop.
I’ll keep reading your evolution for sure.
I relate to this. It’s difficult when one aspect of a life becomes the focus. This is another result of stigma. Our mental health issues are not who we are as people.
You are my BRA – you are full of support and you always have been that way. I shall call you Maidenform if you keep it up!! No, seriously, you rock.
Believe it not, I can actually put myself in my “pre-bipolar” shoes and think, “Why would I add manic depression or bipolar to this woman’s bio? It’s not needed. I want to keep it spare.”. But since I found 2 books about Woolf & bipolar, esp. the free (yay yay yay) one, that really makes me think it’s relevant and interesting to include that she had bp or md on in the AROHO bio. If Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison has something to say about it (which she did in her book “Touched With Fire” and in the Woolf book “The Flight of the Mind”‘s afterward) that also makes me think I’m barking up the right tree after all.
Thanks for everything – I think this is a very cool and illuminating discussion of someone who remains an enigma despite the accolades, films etc.
Hope she starts feeling better soon! I have a sleeping child at home (yes, it’s almost noon). Perhaps I’ll go up and let him know what time it is.
I agree. Thanks, Dy!
Woolf also was very much affected by childhood traumas, including the loss of her mother and incest at the hands of her half-brothers George and Gerald.
Point well made. I do think that you’ve done a great service in addressing the phrase “took her own life” in AROHO’s bio of Woolf. AROHO need only change one sentence to accurately describe Woolf’s illness. Thank you for taking them on.
I used your post as a jumping point for a debate I’ve had going on in my own mind. I’m still open about my bipolar disorder and will continue to be.
Forgive me if I did not sound supportive of your efforts on behalf of mental health awareness and acceptance.
For me, the exhaustion doesn’t come from fighting stigma, so much as from thinking about mental illness 24/7. I just need a break sometimes.
Thank you, Diane. I think for now, I will leave it be and continue to write and create as I’m called or inspired.
I’m open by nature, regardless of the consequences. That is my personality. It’s okay to be private. You should be able to confide in those you love, though. The support of family and close friends is important. I wish you the best.
The site does seem very cool! If it was a crap site, I would’ve most likely have blinked and moved on, you know? I don’t feel like such a dork now that I found two books entirely about V.W. and her manic depression’s influence upon her writing. Thanks for your faith in me. You brightened up my gloomy Monday!!! (both weather-wise and energy-wise, + I have a sick child at home. Luckily she’s not too sick, so I’m very, very thankful for that!)
I think you do SO much, Dyane! I applaud you for addressing it. I agree it deserves at least a mention and could help and even be the salvation writers struggling. I’m going to have to look more at this site.
I’m so lazy, my friend, that I don’t do a whole lot as far as activism! 😉 I love your encouragement so keep that coming, pretty please.
I guess what got me going was to become so hopped up (in a good way) at finding this amazing women’s writing site AROHO that was inspired Woolf, and then found out that something that affected her writing to a HUGE amount was omitted.
I actually just found out last night through finding two books written entirely about Woolf and manic depression’s role in her life that her mood disorder played a much stronger role in her life than I was aware of, which to me is all the more reason to mention it on AROHO’s site. It doesn’t need to be a lot of info., but something…anything…a bone needs to be thrown!
Hi there Sandy Sue! While some folks disagree with me, I personally am okay with either phrase (“took her own life” and “committed suicide”, although now I try to remind myself to write/say “died by suicide” in respect to the suicide survivor movement many of my friends take part in.) Hope that makes sense. So, I’m okay with all three phrases. As Kitt pointed out it wasn’t the wording of Woolf taking her own life, but just the omission of Woolf’s manic depression/bipolar altogether that I thought should have been touched on briefly, and which wrote about in my blog.
Interestingly, last night while on my Kindle while doing a general Virginia Woolf book search, I found two books written entirely about manic depression and its affect upon Woolf; one got great reviews, the other so-so – and there are more books like that, I bet. I didn’t expect to find those! 🙂
Sending you my best, & take care, Dyane
Yes, the AROHO staff are writers, but they could also very well be writers who hold stigma towards mental illness, especially when it comes the woman they so revere. I couldn’t help but wonder what their stance is about the whole thing. Last night while vegging out with my Kindle looking for Virginia Woolf books, I found not one but two books written about how her manic depression played such a significant role in her life. There are probably more books on the topic…I was very intrigued and sampled the books. I might have to write another blog post about Woolf and manic depression that has nothing to do with AROHO…stay tuned…..
As I begin to feel as if some of my worst symptoms have passed, I feel the same way. It is not easy spending all of ones time staring down a stigma. I think that most of the wear and tear comes from the struggle with people who know that their opinions are dangerous and uninformed but who can’t stand being wrong, even if admitting that they are wrong and taking corrective action improves their lives too.
I think that if you feel it somehow inhibits you from writing about anything else, then remove it from your header and include in your bio. I have written often about my depression but about many other things also.
I don’t feel however that to leave it as is, is a stigma that only defines you as bipolar and that you can only write about it.
So, it’s just a matter of your personal choice. (I likely haven’t helped you in making a decision, but I really don’t feel either is a wrong choice) Diane
I agree with Bridget. I too have Bipolar Disorder 2 and I’m obviously keeping my identity secret for now. I was just diagnosed last year and experienced my first real manic episode a few weeks ago. Only a small handful of people know about it. I’m scared to death of people finding out. I’m still wrestling with when to publicly come out and let people know that there are smart functioning people out there with this illness who are not defined solely by it. That we HAVE bipolar but we are NOT bipolar.
Sounds good to me. You could always change the tagline and if it doesn’t sit right, be mercurial and try something else! You were wise to register your URL – that’s the biggie. I pride myself for having very smart cookies as my friends. 😉
Honestly, I just think I’m going to post a variety of posts, which I’ve been doing anyway. Not all posts will be bipolar related (which they are not now). Whether or not I change the tagline, I do not know.
Well put. We are not defined by our illness, but at times it does limit us and in limiting us feels like our identity. Living with a chronic illness is challenging when it is not well-managed. Everyone’s experience with bipolar disorder is unique. As you know, one day, one week, or one month can be better or worse than others.
I think the issue is her mental illness wasn’t discussed, though in most other bios of Woolf it is. I believe that aroomofherownfoundation.org purposefully wrote the bio as they did. They are, after all, writers.
We are all of the above, aren’t we? As was Virginia Woolf.
You are more than welcome to get on your soapbox. That’s what the comment sections are for. I, too, have known the pain of severe depression, a living hell, a pain so deep that the only way out that I could see was death. Point well taken.
I would’ve commented earlier, but it has been a tough weekend here with some family issues. I feel exhausted today and I’m still coughing – ugh. At least the coughs are not bas bad as when it sounded like a lung was going to come up! 🙁 :0 I definitely want to return to this post so I can read these comments & perhaps share my perspective after reading them.
I thank you for writing about such a relevant issue that means a lot to me. And I particularly look forward to reading more about the evolution of your focus!!!
This is the first time I’ve written about my illness. I have a bipolar type II diagnosis among other diagnoses. At one time I was embrassed and didn’t want anyone to know I was bipolar. I was diagnosed 17 years ago and have only recently begun to education myself and want to help others. When I’m not feeling well I don’t think of my illness often and I dont identify myself as my illness. When I’m struggling and I have been for sometime, with mania and depression among other things. When my illness is affecting my life I do consider myself sick and I am my illness.
I think we all fluctuate in our identities. Sometimes carrying the Bipolar Standard into battle feels right. Sometimes we want to be acknowledged for all the other things we are. You know you can change your header as many times as you want!
Being sort of PC dumb, I’m not sure why saying Wolfe “took her own life” is worse than saying she committed suicide. It’s the same thing, isn’t it? What am I missing?
Great points Kitt, but also, isn’t our creativity also a byproduct of our minds being dragged from one side of our brain to the other? I so associate with being bipolar, and I find such comfort in knowing that this is the reason I have always felt as I have my entire life. Being bipolar is who I am. Along with that, I am mother, wife, writer, nurse. But I couldn’t accomplish those successfully if I didn’t have bipolar manifestations pushing me along. Of course there is something to be said for all the pain that goes along with it…so I kind of paint myself into a corner when I get to that point lol
no help on your decision but… this is my two bits on calling it suicide.
most, people 99 of of 100 who take their lives faces a despair, that all hope is lost and it wold be better for them and those around if they were dead. most people, probably 99 out of 100 who reach that level despair are facing depression, also.
when some one dies of cancer, there is no attempted redirect, we say they die of cancer. when someone dies of heart disease, there is no attempted redirect, we say hey died of heart disease. Why the attempted redirect with depression?
depression scare the bejesis our of people. so, instead of speaking the truth, they redirect and use the term suicide. they don’t understand why someone would take their own life. it just boggles their mind.
let’s stop using the term suicide and call it what it is, so and so lost their battle with depression. society would never do than since they’d have face up to the fact that perhaps they could have done most. they could have been a better listener, a better friend, not offer every struggle with a solution, let them know that they are perfectly fine with who they are and where they are. maybe it those things where done, they would be less,lives lost to depression.
sorry, off my soapbox now.
Honestly, I’m not terribly private by nature. I do find that balance is key for me. Balance is not always easy to find. Sometimes I can immerse myself in mental health advocacy and mutual support. Other times, I need to take a step back.
Yes. I do think it is a stage of my recovery. At the same time, I do have a calling for mental health advocacy and will not be going into hiding entirely.
I will no doubt continue to fight the good fight, but I am fatigued and do need to recharge.
I will probably do both – broaden my scope and continue to advocate for mental health.
I’ve thought of that before… on one hand I definitely don’t want my disabilities and my mental health to be my most noticeable identifying features. But I feel like writing about them helps me reach out to other people who I never would have talked to or heard from before. Still, though, it should be the person’s choice… and if the person is dead, they don’t really get to make the choice, so maybe they should be given their privacy by default?
You’re welcome, Kit.
I think that if you are feeling it’s time to move past your illness, it may be because you have also achieved the kind of acceptance that you needed.
This post sparked a lot of thought and I appreciate you writing it. I think for me it goes in waves — wanting to fight and dismantle stigma, but recognizing that sometimes the best way to fight stigma is to live my life — not in hiding but not always bringing attention to my or my family’s illness. It’s also individual and it’s okay that we’re not always in the same place. I can cheer Dyane on as she sheds light on important issues while recognizing that this isn’t necessarily the time for me to fight every battle. Sometimes activism is macro and other times it’s the small, individual things we do, which can be as simple as sharing our diagnosis with a close friend or acquaintance who’s going through something herself or with a family member. We’re all needed. Right now, it sounds like you might need a break from being “the face of bipolar.” That’s okay. I’ve been guilty of feeling like if I’m not in chronic fighting mode and going up against every injustice, then I’m acquiescing. Wise mentors have guided me and helped me see it differently. You have good instincts and have done amazing work. Rest, create, be. You’ll know when and if it’s time to re-engage. I wish you peace as you move forward, in whatever way that might be.
It’s an interesting approach, Kitt, and I get it. I addressed some of my personal issues early on in my blog, then decided to move on. We are so very much more than our illness. Good luck with your decision. We’ll be watching, either way. ❤️
I think that a wonderful way to look at it 🙂
I will always be open about having bipolar. It is my nature to be open. But, my focus may change. I believe it is actually part of my recovery, to not always focus on my illness even as I must cope with it.
Brilliant reply. Thank you, Robert.
You should do what feels right for you. We are all more than our illnesses, and we each have our own way of expressing that. Do what makes Kitt feel the safest, the happiest, the most comfortable. We will still love you and your blog no matter what <3
I think that we do what we need to do. It is emotionally exhausting to publicly expose one’s self to the stigma that one is fighting and at some point one needs a respite.
It is also good to transcend stigma by focusing on those aspects of your life and mind that have nothing to do with mental illness.
I think that we might want to know about Virginia Wolf’s mental illness for the same reason that we want to know about Antonin Artaud’s stay at Rodez,or Vincent Van Gogh’s stay at Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy.
Would we have the brilliant work created by Artaud and Van Gogh if their hospital stays had been shortened by an HMO to a week, which is the average length of stay today?
How many artists, painters and poets have we killed with lethal neglect since the 1980’s.
Virginia Wolf was much, much more than an incest survivor with possible bi-polar illness.
The problem is not who she was; the problem is who we are and the limits we place on people
with mental illnesses.
She helps to illustrate the absurdity of the stigma that allows us to physically torture people who need out help and compassion; and who have so much to give us if we would only give them the resources that they need to be productive.
Hmmm. I’ll have to ponder this for a bit.
Whatever you eventually decide to do Kitt, I am sure it will be awesome!
Thanks, Debby. Will be writing another post as I ponder the evolution of my focus.
Go with your intuition. Evolve your bio or tagline, it may be time. I think it’s all a personal decision about how to present yourself to the world. Not sure how Woolf would have chosen to present herself but she isn’t choosing for AROHO. You do get to choose for your site, though.