I've always thought that stigma against people with mental illness came from ignorance. And when I'm confronted with someone who simply doesn't know much about mental health, I can explain myself, my story, and my viewpoints and stay pretty relaxed through the conversation. After all, there's plenty of stuff I'm ignorant about, and I generally like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

But what happens when the person expressing stigma is extremely intelligent? For me, it's far more complex and uneasy.

Her thesis was that mental illnesses didn't really existRecently at a party, I was introduced to a small group of people by someone who praised my book on mental illness. One of the women in the group asked me what it was about, and I told her that it was a cross country memoir in which I interviewed people who had been successfully treated for bipolar disorder. I had written the very book I needed to read when I was seventeen and diagnosed.

Successfully treated? She said, and she pulled me aside to talk further.

She was incredibly articulate and well educated, a university professor. And yet, her thesis was that mental illnesses didn't really exist. That wellness through medical treatment was a conjured fantasy by the marketers of medicine. In her view, the ways in which people are diagnosed and treated for mental illnesses are nothing more than shoddy methods devised by institutions with profit motives. These methods, she said, stripped individuals of their agency, their humanity and their money.

I agreed with many of her points; you don't have to be a PhD to know that our mental health care system is woefully flawed, and only the most naïve among us are without suspicion of Big Pharma. But to say that those of us who believe we have illnesses and pursue wellness are cogs in a vast exploitive machine deeply upset me. To deny the success of people with mental illness in achieving wellness seemed downright cruel.

I was pretty stunned. What can you do in these situations? Do you battle it out or just walk away? Is it worth it to try and "convert" people or is it better to just stay focused on what you believe and surrounded by people who support your beliefs?

I wondered how she could look me in the eye and think that I had been stripped of my humanity and my agency. I wondered how she figured that any person with mental illness could somehow get by without humanity or agency. In fact, I told her, people who pursue wellness must express agency. They have to constantly monitor moods and triggers; they have to navigate their way through the mental health care system; they have to take responsibility for the ways in which their illness has impaired their work and their relationships; they have to constantly and consistently pursue wellness. You want agency? I'll show you agency. I had to build my life up from total devastation at the age of seventeen after I became horrifyingly ill with bipolar disorder. That's agency.

I didn't say that. I couldn't somehow.

You can't operate socially with shame in the systemI told her that I have had contact with thousands of people and their families suffering from mental illness, and that there is no question in my mind that these illnesses are real. I tried to persuade her, but she didn't budge from her rhetoric. It was almost like she had an edge on me, simply because she only had an intellectual relationship to the subject, whereas I had a personal, emotional, political and intellectual relationship to the subject. I started to worry, is this what everybody at this party thinks? Is this what all of my friends really think? Looking back, I didn't stay as calm as I should have. I didn't make the points I could have. I let her get under my skin, and in doing so, I allowed her to shame me, and shame the work to which I've devoted most of my professional life. Of course you can't operate socially with shame in the system; it's like spilling coffee into your computer (which I have also done). Everything goes blank.

In the end, I invited the woman to come to one of my lectures and to meet a few families struggling with mental illness. I wanted her to test her judgmental and reductive rhetoric against actual human suffering, to expand her vitriolic assassination of American culture, business, and politics to acknowledge the painful reality of millions of Americans, with due empathy and respect. She said she would email me, and we'll see.

While considerably trying, it is meaningful to me to speak with people who don't agree with me. It is not only a key ingredient to my personal growth, it's an essential component of a healthy democracy. And I know that we can lessen stigma by being examples, and sources of information, in our communities. I encourage people all of the time to share their stories. I have shared my story with tens of thousands of people through lectures and through my book, and I have been rewarded in a million ways a million times over for my offering. But I'm not immune to stigma. Once is a while, I guess, I can expect to get stung.