When Stigma Comes from Within
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Vincent J. Fitzgerald MSW LCSW

I have often written about my young adulthood grapple with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and later, its accomplice, Panic Disorder. Within my divulgence, I also revealed I am a psychotherapist and social worker because I want readers to know mental illness knows no boundaries and that I fight alongside them. But I also wanted them to understand the extent to which we can survive psychopathology, and author our own lives word by word. By further divulging to clients my own treatment history, both through medication and psychotherapy, I strived not to sow seeds, but to water those already sown so that we could experience growth together.
Because I believe the opaque therapist antiquated, I am transparent about my mental illness history with some clients, and I acknowledge all risk. I do so because above all, it is the relationship that heals, and because mutual disclosure is vital to relationships, I share. Those experiences have provided me with some of the richest experiences of my professional life. After my purposeful revelations, no client ever ran from my office as if the building was burning, nor have any eschewed me for a saner therapist. But those facts do not preclude the presence of stigma in my life. Sadly, when I felt the blade of stigma, she who wielded the sword was the mother of my children, who desired to use my disorders as weaponry to win sole legal custody.

From the time my children were born, until their middle adolescence, anxiety diluted my parenting experience, but never nullified my insight, or my judgment. As a young father, I obsessed about my kids choking on their food, drowning in baths, and being flung from playground swings. I also dreaded when they got too close to other kids in our pediatrician’s waiting room for fear they would catch a stomach bug or the flu. Believing doom was always imminent, I often pulled away from fatherhood, and lost myself in video games or nights out in bars in which beer served as a momentary tonic. Shame dictated I never speak of anxiety then, and the result was a misconstruing of anxiety as apathy. Looking back, I’m proud to say I never starved my children, put them to bed dirty, or cheated them of joy inherent to playgrounds and amusement parks.
Not long after my children moved fifty miles away, I began to suffer panic attacks when I drove long distances, finding the vastness of the road claustrophobic. Panic scared me from driving to my children, or pick them up for sleepovers. Sometimes I could fight through it, and sometimes I couldn’t. While guilt over missed time with them piled on, their mother labeled me absent and attempted to build a case against me.
Beneath a veneer of willingness to accommodate restrictions placed on me by paralyzing fear, she harbored a hidden agenda to weaponize my mental illness, and use it against me to gain sole right to make decisions regarding our children’s lives. The motion I received in the mail in March of 2014 claimed my insight and judgment were impaired to the extent I could not make sound parenting decisions.
Over the course of an expansive mental health career, I have helped others through the explorative relationship of psychotherapy. I am a psychiatric screener licensed by my state to involuntarily commit people whose insight and judgement were damaged to the extent they posed a threat to self, others, or property. I have also case managed many people mired in the hell of concurrent substance abuse and mental illness to help them maintain stability in their community. Yet despite the compassionate care I gave to hundreds of vulnerable people, a person with whom I had shared beautiful life experiences attempted to eviscerate me with accusations of being unfit for fatherhood.

There were moments subsequent to reading the motion when I questioned my sanity, my effectiveness, and my ability to keep my children safe, but I realized part of the purpose of the motion was to gaslight me from fifty miles away, and I had to remember anxiety does not equal ineptitude. I never raised the issue with my former wife because I believe harmony between divorced parents paves the smoothest road for children. Though we may have failed at marriage, we still had a chance to be successful in divorce. So, I kept my mouth shut, savored memories accrued, and mourned those lost.

Weeks later my postal worker delivered vindication in the form of a denied motion for sole custody. The court also would not be gaslighted and saw no evidence of inability to make sound decisions on behalf of my children. It was a victory, a well-needed affirmation, and a reminder the judicial system is fair. However, I remain scarred by the attempt to use my mental illness as a weapon of unfriendly fire. I keep the motion in a lock box like shrapnel preserved in a jar to remind myself that despite efforts of advocates, there remain those who will attempt to exploit vulnerability for personal gain, and vulnerable people will be on the receiving end of such exploitation. Perhaps more importantly, the incident reminded me that while I must always be on the lookout for those who stigmatize, if we fix our gaze on the distant horizon, we become susceptible to threats looming in the foreground. 

Vincent is a practicing psychotherapist and writer with a Masters
Degree in Social Work from Fordham University. He is a lifelong
resident of Jersey City, NJ and remarried father of two awesome
children. He hopes to continue forging universal connections through
personal stories. Vincent owes a his professional desire to his
persevering mother, his drive to his hard working father, and his
accomplishments to his incredible wife, Gemma.
Find Vincent on his websiteFacebook and Twitter.