I’m used to people telling me I don’t look like who I am. “You don’t look Muslim.” “You don’t look American.” “You don’t look like a feminist.” And of course, ever since I began writing and speaking about living with bipolar disorder: “You don’t look crazy.”
Most of the time, I manage to keep my cool in response to all the you-don’t-looks (hereafter YDLs), though occasionally, I reply with my own YDL—namely, “You don’t look stupid.” It’s childish, I know, but after a while, all those YDLs can wear a girl down.
Were it not for the fact that I regularly field a downright cornucopia of YDLs, I’d have a hard time believing that anyone could possibly be tactless or clueless enough to speak them aloud. But let me assure you, such people exist, and they are many.
Lovers of meaningless qualifiers, they often preface their ignorance with phrases like “I don’t mean to sound racist, but …” or “Not to be sexist, but …” My advice when faced with such creatures: flee before the ellipses! But alas, most of us aren’t that fast. So what to do?
Besides avoiding my puerile “You don’t look stupid” retort (it may feel good to strike a comeback at first, but it accomplishes nothing at best and belligerence at worst), I try to appreciate the difference between ignorance and bigotry. I would argue that many, if not most, YDL offenders have zero malicious intent. For the most part, they simply don’t know any better. They don’t know that plenty of Muslims, plenty of Americans, plenty of feminists, and yes, plenty of people with psychiatric conditions, do look like me. They don’t know that we can look, sound, and seem just as “normal” as they do. And while we’re on the subject, they probably also don’t know that there is no such thing as “normal.”
Take “Jim” (not his real name). A retired courier for a delivery service, Jim is a white Christian American male who claims to have never been diagnosed with a mental illness. He has little sense of the privilege that his race, religion, gender, and mental health status afford him, but he is kind, creative, garrulous, and eccentric. While I wouldn’t call him socially conscious, neither would I call him a racist, sexist, sanist, or any of the other nasty “-ists” or “-phobes.” In short, he is a decent human being.
The first time I met Jim, a friend of a friend, he already knew a bit about me, including the fact that I have bipolar disorder. After asking several questions about what he still called “manic-depression,” he looked me square in the eye and came out with this common variation on the standard YDL: “Not to be rude, but you look so normal.” He proceeded to inform me that I couldn’t have a mental illness.
It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened to me, but what distinguished Jim was his supreme confidence in his assessment. After having known me less than an hour, and with whatever medical training his delivery-service employer provides its couriers, he was recommending that I quit taking my meds.
After having known me less than an hour, and with whatever medical training his delivery-service employer provides its couriers, he was recommending that I quit taking my meds.
I could have spent that entire afternoon arguing with him, and under other circumstances, I might have done so, intent on educating him. But I sensed something familiar in Jim’s presentation—in the family history of suicide he had revealed, in the pressured nature of his speech, in his wide array of strange hobbies and his wider array of former wives.
By the time we’d finished talking—or more precisely, by the time I exited his monologue—I had my own suspicions about Jim and his strong conviction that I couldn’t have bipolar disorder.
His history, his behavior, and the fervor of his argument against my diagnosis led me to strongly suspect that Jim’s definition of normal, including his statement that I looked so normal, had much more to do with him than with me. Like a closeted televangelist preaching the evils of homosexuality, Jim’s bombast was merely an ill-executed attempt at hiding a bigger battle within, one that—despite his obvious projection—had nothing to do with me.
Unlike Jim, I had long ago abandoned “normal,” that ever-elusive figment of our collective imagination, and in doing so, I had already set myself free.