This past weekend a bunch of friends and I went to my parents’ cabin to celebrate my birthday. When I say “cabin,” I mean cabin. It’s a log cabin in the middle of snowy nowhere. It doesn’t even have an address because it’s that remote. Think 1800’s if the 1800’s had a working toilet. That’s where we were.
We were sitting by the stone fireplace, and our entertainment at that moment was me reading from my recently discovered middle school diary. Let me tell you – reading my middle school self was HILARIOUS. I mostly wrote about how in love I was with this kid in my class, Andrew, and how I kept trying to get him to notice me and he KEPT NOT NOTICING ME. It was really funny (in retrospect, that is. When I was in middle school it sucked.) All the girls at the cabin said they could totally identify with how I felt – some pieces of the middle school girl experience are universal. All of the guys looked appalled – that’s what their wives and girlfriends were like in middle school?? Yep! It was enlightening for all involved. We were laughing to the point of crying.
I got to one part of the diary where I was SO ANGRY at my dad for not letting me invite boys to a party I was throwing (the nerve!!). I couldn’t believe he would be so closed-minded and stubborn. One post later, in true junior high fashion, I said, “Actually, never mind about my dad. I’m cool with it. There’s enough drama when I only invite girls over. I certainly don’t need to add guys to the mix.” Everyone laughed at my sudden turnabout, and one of the guys, laughing hard, said, “Oh my gosh, are you bipolar?!”
It was amazing how the cozy glow of contentment I felt by that fireplace was instantly extinguished, like someone had poured cold water over my head. Thoughts that I’d been able to finally – for the first time in weeks – push into background noise were suddenly loud and clear in my head again. There was sharp focus on things I’d tried so hard to make a little bit hazy.
I know the time between his comment and my response was a split second, but it was such a crucial, time-stopping split second. I knew I had to make a decision on whether to laugh it off or call him out. I looked down at my diary page, not wanting to meet anyone’s eyes. I knew the few people in the room who knew my secret were looking at me nervously, waiting for my cue. They would be all over him if I wanted to declare how not-funny that joke actually was. I knew that. I also knew that I had the capacity to make everyone’s night really awkward really fast, and we were all having such a good time. I didn’t want to cold-water-bucket everyone’s night just because my feelings had been hurt. In the end, I took the (cowardly? selfless? self-deprecating?) way out and laughed it off. “Clearly yes,” I responded, not looking up from my diary. “Haven’t you been listening? I’m obviously crazy.” I gave my best attempt at a laugh, which put the people in the room who were formerly on high-alert back at ease. The laugh didn’t reach past my face, though. It wasn’t real. That joke wasn’t funny.
Aside from the fact that his joke about a very real illness was totally inappropriate, I also wanted to say, “Being a moody pre-teen is not a symptom of bipolar disorder. It’s a side effect of being in junior high. You want to talk about symptoms of bipolar disorder? LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT.” But I didn’t say that. I really didn’t say anything.
Why is it socially acceptable to make jokes about mental illness? I don’t understand. I would never go up to someone and say, “Wow, you’ve got a huge bruise on your arm. Do you have leukemia? HA HA HA.” or “I see you’ve gone to the bathroom twice in two hours. Are you diabetic? LOL!” Because those jokes wouldn’t be funny. No one would laugh. Why, then, is it okay to joke about bipolar disorder or any other mental illness? Why do people make jokes about cutting themselves or killing themselves? I’ve cut myself and I’ve tried to kill myself – I assure you that neither are remotely funny. Not at all. Where is the humor in this? Why do people laugh? More importantly, I suppose, how do we stop it?
I know it’s not by laughing it off when someone makes a joke about my diary, that’s for sure. I just wasn’t ready to battle that issue when I was having my first “I’m glad to be alive” weekend in a long time. I hope that doesn’t make me weak. One day I’ll be ready to battle people who make jokes they know nothing about. I guess it just wasn’t this weekend.