Receiving the proper diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death, acceptance and ostracism, understanding and confusion. The right treatment can be an important part of functioning well, forming and maintaining relationships, and finding peace with your limits. However, when you’re a queer and poly female-bodied person of color the lines start to blur between experience and illness.
What do I mean? Well, I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression at a young age. Black women are much more likely to be misdiagnosed. We are also more likely to have our sexual history interpreted differently, through the lens of mental illness rather than through sexual agency. So the doctors took one look at my sexual history, my mood swings, and my suicidal tendencies and decided that I was bipolar. It didn’t matter that I was suffering from PTSD due to my history of sexual and physical abuse. It didn’t matter that the reason I’d come in for help was because I only felt insane when I was having my menstrual cycle. My large sex drive was seen as an aberration, as dysfunctional instead of simply being part of who I was.
I could have died from being treated for conditions I didn’t have. I’d been treated with medications for depression and bipolar disorder. These medications wrecked my body and only ended up making things worse because the underlying problems actually turned out to be physical and not mental. There’s very little education about the overlap between physical disabilities and mental disorders. Many of the physiological effects can be similar or overlapping. And for black women in the US, it is much more likely that our physical symptoms will be ignored in favor of mental ones. It is often so easy to simply believe that we are crazy rather than ill.
For physical illnesses it is also incredibly difficult to find treatments for the mental effects. Doctors tend to focus only on the physical aspects and you’re pretty much on your own mentally. Which of course means that you’re still experiencing chronic condition-related mental illness yet cannot always take the same medications as someone who developed it in other ways. And if you’re of a different race and sex they are also less willing to try alternative treatments, often going for the extremes. Many black people forgo treatment for mental and physical illnesses due to poverty, lack of access to quality care, and because they aren’t receiving the correct care. Sometimes the healthiest choice they can make is to self-manage and self-treat, at least until they can afford better.
In the polyamorous community there are plenty of people who say they absolutely will not date anyone with a mental disorder. Or they stress not dating anyone who’s unmedicated, regardless of the cause, history, or severity of their mental illness. Even simply not dating outside of one’s race is one of the hidden biases of the community. And when you have physical illnesses and a traumatic past that can actually lead to mental disorders like anxiety and depression then it becomes even murkier. When you take birth control that can actually cause anxiety, things really get fun! Imagine trying to explain to potential lovers that you were diagnosed with bipolar, but wait, no, it’s really PCOS and endometriosis and fibromyalgia, oh, and did I mention that I have depression and anxiety caused by PTSD and my illnesses but I’m still totally fine?
For many people it’s hard enough to try to understand mental illness alone. And most never hear about disabilities beyond the obvious physical ones. And very few understand how health interacts and intersects with race, class, sex, and sexuality. While poly people like to think they know a lot about emotional health they do tend to disguise their preferences for healthy, drama-free people as not being ableist, racist, or offensive. It’s rather tempting for poly people to make very clear and exclusive lists of the types of people they’re looking for, regardless of circumstances. And getting left out is simply par for the course for those of us who have mental and physical illnesses on top of being from other races. While everyone has a right to ask for exactly what they want it also behooves them to examine the source of those preferences. There might be more to the story that they’re not seeing. In short, they might be misdiagnosing a hell of a lot of people.
This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.
Michón Neal writes a mix of scifi, fantasy, erotica, and autobiography called cuil fiction about unique people in unique circumstances. Ze is currently working on The Cuil Effect Project, a ridiculously long tale about healing, absurdity, and all the different ways people interact. Zir books are available on Kindle, Smashwords, Scribd, Kobo, and more. You can find more details, sneak peaks, links, and absurdity on zir blog, Shadow in the Mirror.