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Living with bipolar disorder, she wonders about picking sides

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Alison Bergblom Johnson
Alison Bergblom Johnson is a Minneapolis writer working on a memoir called "Alison Failure."
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Yes, I really have a mental illness. And I am just like you. 

Last fall, I was talking with a mental health staff member about "passing for normal." I wanted to make the point that some people with severe mental illness still pass for normal. I brought the issue up because I am one of those normal-seeming people. In 2000, I was diagnosed with unipolar depression; however, my diagnosis changed to bipolar disorder in 2009.

Still, I meet friends for lunch. I shop at Target. I fall in and out of love. I design websites, write essays, walk in the park. And, yes, every day I take medication to ensure I keep doing those things, keep showing up for life and lunch dates. The fact that I have a mental illness doesn't blink on my forehead like a warning light, declaring, "Stay away. Mad crazy person." If you met me on the street, you wouldn't clutch your purse. If you met me at a mental health clinic, you'd wonder how long I'd worked there. I pass for normal.

George-George doesn't. You may have seen him hanging out on Nicollet Avenue. He looks like a homeless man. But he's not, he actually has housing. George-George is called George-George because he says everything twice. I think he forgets to bathe, and his hair sticks up. He's not dangerous. But he has a mental illness.

One day, my then-boyfriend and I were walking in George-George's neighborhood. I'd forgotten about George-George for the moment, lost in happiness and the touch of my new boyfriend's hand in mine. I really liked this guy, which was why I hadn't explained the extent of my illness. Sure, he knew I had one, but the conversation ended there.

I was terrified to see George-George. I wanted to be normal for my boyfriend. I didn't want to explain my now long-ago hospital stays or the day program I used to go to where I met George-George. I didn't want this man to look at me the way someone does when he's in the presence of someone strange. I just wanted to hold hands and walk.

But I couldn't be normal Alison around George-George, because George-George knew me and where I had been. He and I got along. We had played adaptive volleyball together. On this day, though, I wanted to walk the other way. I didn't want to be outed by George-George, as I would be should he call my name. I'd become one of "them."

As human beings, we have an us/them mentality. "Us" as Americans vs. "them" as Iranians. "Us" the perfectly normal, and "them" the mentally ill. "Us" is fine, but you never want to be "them." 

I've heard there's no such thing as normal, that to buy into the concept of normal is to enhance the stigma of mental illness; still, I pass as normal all the time. I do it so well that I'm sometimes confronted with a situation like the one I found myself in with George-George. 

So what did I do? Did I turn my boyfriend around and give him some lie about a scarf I'd forgotten in the Vietnamese restaurant? Or did I walk up to George-George and introduce him to my new boyfriend? 

It doesn't matter. What matters is that even as someone diagnosed with a major mental illness, I sometimes feel the pressure to separate myself from "them." I like the option of standing on a street corner and not being the one everyone tries to avoid. I blend in, at least on the outside. But why do I think I need to wrestle between these two worlds, us and them? Should I be ashamed because I don't always know where I stand? Should labels even exist? Or do they serve a purpose, helping us find our identity? And what are the consequences when one doesn't want the identity of being either one of us or one of them?

Still, I have a mental illness. And still, I'm just like you.

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Alison Bergblom Johnson is a Minneapolis writer working on a memoir called "Alison Failure." She will have a Minnesota Fringe show in August.