Those Statistics are People

BCN 124 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 124, April 2014

Statistics – as an article elsewhere this issue reflects – show how much more likely it is for bisexuals to experience mental health problems. But what does it mean to be one of those people, rather than a statistic?

I have over a decade’s history of various mental illnesses, mainly depression and anxiety. I used to be adamant being bi had nothing to do with being depressed. I never mentioned my sexuality to any mental health professionals, and none of them ever asked. I’m just another inconspicuous, married, cis-woman settled in suburbia with a cat and a netflix subscription. I spent quite a few years thinking it didn’t matter that I’m bi, or that I’m not really ‘bi enough’ to count. I never brought up my sexuality in therapy partly because ‘it didn’t come up’ and partly because of fear that if I mentioned it they would assume I had issues or was confused.

About 3 years ago, I wanted to talk about a work situation where I was bothered by homophobic and biphobic views I had heard from colleagues, so I came out to my therapist. Unfortunately their reaction was even worse than what I had feared. The therapist wanted to talk about my ‘choice’ to be bisexual and how I could possibly be faithful to my partner. I was devastated, at my lowest ebb and betrayed by a professional I had trusted in a time of need. The weeks after that were a pretty dark time. I made a complaint even though I had minimal energy. That was pretty scary, I know it is all supposed to be confidential I don’t know what happens to that complaint once logged. I don’t know who sees it, who sees an anonymised version of it, who has access to what data, who is trustworthy. It also disrupted treatment as I sorted out a new therapist, waited for a response to my complaint and tried to get on with life again. The new therapist really worked out for me, even though they too had some pretty odd questions (apparently I must have really strong feelings to know I’m bisexual? I have no idea, I only now what it is like to be me). Now, I still have depression, off and on, and the complaint came to nothing. I doubt I will ever find it easy to trust health professionals again, but apart from that, I’m doing alright.

Reflecting on the episode since then has been almost a consciousness-awakening experience. I’m not saying I’m depressed because I’m bi, it is more about identifying the little, and not so little things, that might contribute to increased vulnerability to mental illness. This is very much a personal perspective, but that’s what is behind the statistics, lots and lots of individual experiences.

One of the clichés is that bisexuals are confused. Well, it is confusing growing up without knowing that other people like you exist. I knew about gay and straight, I was okay with the idea of being gay but then I’d get a crush on a dude and it would all seem up in the air again. I’d heard people could have gay ‘phases’ but I’d never heard of having a ‘straight phase’ so, yes, that was confusing. I’d heard lots of negative prejudiced things about homosexuality and experienced homophobic bullying. Frankly I think it should be criminal to perpetuate or ignore homophobia in schools. All these things can eat away at your self esteem, whether or not you realise it. When I finally heard of bisexuality it was in the context of someone being accused of pretending to be bi to get attention. So that was an instant introduction to the world of bisexual erasure and got my biphobia bingo card off to a great start!

It seems quite well-recognised now that there can be prejudice and discrimination within and between LGBT communities too. When I first identified as bi back in my teens, I actually called one of the helplines and asked about going to their youth group, but I wasn’t allowed because it was for lesbians and not bisexuals. Recently, even in the bisexual space of BiCon, I had an argument with someone convinced I had to be looking for a girlfriend, as it was the only reason he could understand my attending. Most or all BCN readers will have been told their label of choice, be it bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual or whatever else, is “not real” and they must be gay or straight really. Experiencing discrimination is stressful, and then compounded by not necessarily getting the support you might expect from the communities you turn to.

I think perhaps one of the worst things for our mental health is being closeted. Sometimes it is a choice or a necessity, sometimes it’s a place you get pushed into by other people’s perceptions. Bisexual erasure makes us invisible to each other as well as to society more widely, reducing even more the likelihood of having a supportive community to turn to if you face discrimination. The stress and pressure of keeping part of your very identity hidden, again has to add somewhat to the risk of mental illness.

As well as being possibly subject to outward discrimination and prejudice, I think we get a double whammy of more insiduous, internalised prejudice. Both internalised homophobia (telling yourself things like, “I might be weird but I’m not as weird as those lesbians who dress like men”) and internalised biphobia, (e.g. feeling a need to prove extra hard that you can be faithful, aren’t greedy, aren’t confused). Why do I feel like I need to say I’m married and monogamous? I think it is back to the not wanting to be ‘too weird’ thing. I hope saying this doesn’t upset anyone, I didn’t even realise till quite recently that that there is internalised biphobia going on. It is hard to tackle internalised prejudice, however, it is impossible if you aren’t even aware you are afflicted with them. It is completely okay to be bi and poly or mono, bi and trans or cis, bi and BDSM or vanilla. It is completely okay to seek help from a professional to specifically talk about your sexuality, it is completely okay to identify differently over time or to reject all the current pigeon holes available. Seeing each other as threats just perpetuates prejudice in the end.

Coming from the starting point that I couldn’t see a connection between my depression and my sexuality, I have identified quite a number of added stressors I’ve faced specifically as a bisexual individual. From navigating societal structures that favour binary identities, to internalised prejudice, and mutual invisibility, the large and small factors that touch us each as individuals add up to a statistical trend. I only hope understanding the larger pattern can actually help those of us effected by mental illness, not to reduce us to statistics but to begin to identify and then tackle the stresses and prejudices we may be subject to.