I have never, ever been the popular girl. I have been the loner on the margins. The girl without the right clothes or shoes, for a while the girl without a home. The girl with scars. In high school the isolation I felt effected my mental well-being because there was nothing I could do to fix my social status. The sense of not knowing what to say in social situations grew up in me too. The more aware I became of my own awkwardness the more I withdrew. Depression, self-harm, and eating disorders all fed into my need to hide all that I felt inside myself.
Ten years later I still catch myself reacting internally like that scared high-schooler. Even though I am in recovery from eating disorders and self-harm, I still feel an internal sense of shame. For me it is my scars that feed my social anxiety because I worry about being judged or rejected. In my default mode, I navigate my world assuming others will reject me, and isolation is my status quo.
The lies I have believed about mental illness can make me my own worst enemy. Growing up I saw my history of self-harm and eating disorders as evidence of personal failure, as something to hide. I also believed that having had depression was evidence of flawed character. These beliefs about mental illness continually fed into my feelings of social inferiority.
While it is difficult to change the way, you think about yourself, now that I know there is a strong neuro-biological component to mental illness, I must admit history of mental illness isn’t my fault. When I choose to agree with the shame I feel, I am the one giving power to stigma. I am the only one who has the power to break this internal stigma because I get to choose what I believe about myself. So for me breaking stigma requires intentionally breaking out of the mindset my childhood gave me. It requires me to talk back to my mental tapes that tell me I am not enough.
Two years ago, I entered nursing school convinced I was not enough. I was dealing with post-partum depression, but too scared to use the phone to call and make an appointment. I would come back from my classes every week and question whether I could finish the program. In our nursing assessment class, we practiced skin assessments on each other. For the individuals partnered with me there was no ignoring the scars. They had to bring them up— it was literally part of our assignment. I will never forget hearing my classmate say, “I recognize what this is and I know you are better now. You are going to be an amazing nurse. Believe in yourself.”
I latched on to that encouragement. I sought it out. I began to admit my doubts to my classmates and they repeatedly affirmed their belief in my ability to achieve my goal. I had believed for so long that the world was a place of judgement, but they proved me wrong. I found in my class a culture of acceptance, support and encouragement. It is when we began to discuss stigma in my mental health class that I recognized two things: (1) fear of stigma was the cause of my social anxiety, and (2) fear of stigma was the main reason I had not sought help for post-partum depression.
As I read through the Bring Change to Mind website, I realized that stigma is broken by open discussion. I resolved to talk about mental health, about my experiences with mental illness, and about how stigma creates a barrier to treatment. When I opened up about my experience with depression and social anxiety people shared with me about their own experiences. Their transparency helped me to lay aside my fears of being stigmatized and seek medical help for my post-partum depression. I needed it.
I am now mentally and emotionally in a better place because I made the choice to pursue treatment. I am in my final semester of nursing school, on the precipice of achieving my goal. I am choosing to believe that depression and anxiety do not define or limit me. The experiences that contributed to my feelings of social anxiety, now drive my desire for social justice. I am becoming a nurse because I want opportunities to care for the marginalized, to advocate for the homeless and the poor, and to speak life and hope to patients experiencing depression. Rather than detracting from my ability to show empathy, my experience with stigma contributes to every ounce of empathy I feel. I know what it is like to be lonely.
Don’t let mental illness define you. Don’t let it limit the goals that you set for yourself. You are capable of more than your brain chemistry may let you believe in the beginning. Surround yourself with people who care about you and listen to what they say you are capable of. Choose to think differently about mental illness and about yourself. If the stigma you feel is coming from inside of you, you have the power to break it. You get to choose what you believe about yourself.