THE BLOG
08/12/2013 08:27 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

Profiles in Courage of the Mentally Ill

While we keep hearing and reading about a "cycle" of incarceration, homelessness, addiction and hospitalization for the mentally ill, the truth is that most of those with serious mental illness are more likely to blend in to society than to be on its fringes. It may not make for breaking news when people work their way invisibly through various professions, including medicine, law, business and journalism, without incident.

And yet every once in a while people who have blended in nicely point out that they too have a serious mental illness, something that has not prevented them from attaining success in their fields and lives.

I have been trying to de-stigmatize mental illness since my 2005 op-ed in the L.A. Times, titled "Shedding Stigma of the 'Psycho' Straitjacket." When I wrote that piece, I was trying to show, by my own example, that many individuals with a severe mental disorder, such as schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, my two previous diagnoses, or major depression with psychotic features, my current diagnosis, function at a high level in the work force.

I know that it came as a surprise to my colleagues at the L.A. Weekly, where I worked as a copy editor at the time of my 2005 op-ed, that I had any diagnosis at all. Up until the time of that piece, I was viewed as being somewhat eccentric but fairly "normal" by L.A. Weekly standards.

On my first day at work after writing that column, I entered the office of the news editor of the paper, who came right up to me, shook my hand and said, "Welcome to the L.A. Weekly psych ward. That's a redundancy."

It is not L.A. Weekly alone that has housed highly functional people with mental disorders.

I can't claim that it was specifically due to my last column, in which I critiqued articles conveying that the mentally ill cycle in and out of the criminal justice system, or even that it was due to all my columns since 2005, but recent op-eds in the New York Times by Melody Moezzi, an attorney with bipolar disorder, and Juliann Garey, a novelist, journalist and screenwriter, also with bipolar disorder, have reinforced my point that many mentally ill people in this country have blended in for years.

As in my case, Moezzi and Garey have been perceived as "normal," and they have demonstrated competence, even mastery of their fields, but that does not mean that they don't know the stigma of mental illness.

Moezzi wrote about how state bar associations in many states have made it difficult for attorneys with a serious mental illness to practice law. According to her piece, the state bar in Georgia, where she practices, used to ask attorneys on their "fitness" applications to indicate whether or not they have suffered, in the past five years, from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and any other psychotic disorder.

At the time she took the bar exam, Moezzi had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, which did not prevent her from gaining entrance to the bar. Now, she reports, the Georgia bar association also inquires about whether a prospective attorney has been diagnosed with major depression in the past five years.

Thankfully, for Moezzi, she did not have to lie at the time that she took the bar exam and filled out the fitness report.

Not everyone has been so lucky.

In her piece in the N.Y. Times, Garey wrote about how she has been mistreated by several doctors, including an ear, nose and throat specialist, who refused to give her the proper medication for pain in her ear because he was not "comfortable" with Garey's bipolar diagnosis and regimen of pills. Garey, whom I interviewed earlier this year upon the publication of her novel about a bipolar Hollywood executive, Too Bright To Hear Too Loud To See, has since endured hearing loss from the bursting of her ear drum.

While both of these stories serve as cautionary tales and suggest that we should not be open about our mental illness with everyone, the two pieces also make it clear that these two women, both successful and high-functioning, would never have been viewed as mentally ill were they not so candid about their conditions.

This gets back to the point I have made since 2005. Most of us blend in. Most of us are not "revolving-door patients," substance abusers, homeless or incarcerated. And you can be sure that very few of us are ever a threat to anyone but ourselves.

A few years ago, when I took a class, called "Peer to Peer," at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I was heartened but not surprised that my instincts on this subject, honed from my own experience, were correct. Of the 25 or so people in that class, including the three teachers, only one person indicated that he had ever been charged with a violent crime, which in the case of this individual was arson. Most of the other class members were mild-mannered, law-abiding citizens, who were either working or trying to get jobs and succeed in life.

Few had the gifts of Melody Moezzi or Juliann Garey.

But they were all plugging along, trying not to give up hope, concerned about the extent to which they should reveal their illness to their employers or dates, and disheartened by the clichés, perpetuated to an extent by the media, that the mentally ill are violent, incompetent, or simply cycling through the criminal justice system.