“Potential” is an odd word. It can sound like such a positive thing. “He/she really shows a lot of potential,” for instance, seems like a pretty nice thing to say about somebody. The future is bright for that person. Potentially.

“You have so much potential.” I used to get that a lot. It sounded a little like a compliment. The person saying it was often remarking on my intelligence. I was, after all, “gifted”. I had the test scores to prove it. I had “potential”.

But the thing with the word “potential” is that it is, if you think about it, more of a slap to the face than it is a compliment. Potential, after all, is not about who you are now. It is about who you could be, later, if only you would do the things that other people, the people talking about “potential”, want you to do.

By high school, for me “potential” really had become less about a promise for the future and more about an indictment of the present. “Potential” was oppressive. “Potential” was more like a cautionary tale. “You know, he had so much potential.”

I was a screw up. I knew it. My teachers knew it. I’m sure my parents knew it, although to their great credit I don’t recall them rubbing that in my face. I was not able to live up to my “potential”. I graduated, barely, from high school. I went off, foolishly, to college. And the only thing that my “potential” got me was academic suspension.

What I didn’t know as I transitioned from an A to C to F student, what never occurred to me while I was busy being a “screw up” and wasting my “potential” was that I had undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder. Having days where I would drive to class only to find myself paralyzed with anxiety and unable to get out of my car for the entire day should probably have clued me in. I just considered it to be a personal moral failing.

The obsession (I would play guitar 8-10 hours a day for weeks on end), the anger (I broke a foot and an awful lot of furniture kicking and punching things in my dorm), the depression, the anxiety, the racing thoughts, and the paranoia should have been clues. But I knew nothing about bipolar disorder. I really didn’t know anything about mental health at all. The only thing I really knew about mental illness was that those people were “crazy”. I was not crazy. Therefore, whatever was wrong with me was not mental illness. I was just a bad person. I was ontologically “wrong”.

That feeling that I just described and the culture that leads to it is called stigma. Mental illness is not discussed, at least not in polite company. The lack of honest, open discussion about mental illness creates a void that is filled by pop culture and offensive, ignorant stereotypes. I was symptomatic starting around the age of 14. I flunked out of college at 19. I was suicidal by 22 and initially (mis)diagnosed with depression. Between an awful experience with counseling and being on the wrong medication I confirmed what I already knew: that I was not mentally ill. I was just a bad person, a broken person.

It wasn’t until I was 34 that I got an accurate diagnosis and got started on the path to recovery and stability. Those 12 years from 22 to 34 are a kind of blur to me. I spent an awful lot of it on self-loathing and self-harm. Stigma prevented me from seeking the help that my loved ones knew that I needed. It was only when my spouse made it a condition of our marriage for me to seek help that I finally did.

Stigma ruins lives. Stigma kills. Stigma is perpetuated daily. I have lost multiple friends to stigma. Men especially have a hard time seeking help. We just need to “man up”. We need to “toughen up”. We need to, metaphorically, “walk it off”. “It doesn’t hurt.” “Don’t cry.” We learn these in sports from the time that we are in elementary school. And that mentality is hard to break out of.

I was a screw up. I was ontologically wrong. I was a mean, angry, selfish, awful person. I deserved to hurt. I deserved to suffer. I deserved to die. I had wasted all of my “potential”. That was what I told myself, and all because of stigma.

Now I don’t have “potential” anymore, and I haven’t squandered it, either. I may not have lived up to other people’s standards for me but those standards don’t matter. I am me and I am learning to be happy, or at least content with that. I went back to school in my mid-thirties and now have a BFA in studio art. Even if I didn’t meet that goal, the fact that I wake up every morning, get out of bed, and face each day is a hell of a thing in and of itself.

I don’t have “potential”. Instead I am awesome. And that’s just fine by me.