I am mentally ill. I am always mentally ill. I will always be mentally ill.
This is my internal monologue. Crippled by self-stigma, I can’t get away from it. Even if no one else knows, it’s like everyone knows. Something triggers a symptomatic response and I become hyperaware of my disorder. Moments of calm are replaced with agitated introspection for which medication and therapy offer little ease or comfort. I know I’m different, and I don’t like it. I feel shackled and ashamed. I find it challenging to maintain a positive outlook when this all-consuming notion is in my head. I’m straightjacketed to the inescapable fact that I have schizophrenia, that it’s debilitating, lifelong, and incurable. And not my fault.
If I had a physical condition like high cholesterol, I would need to alter my health regimen if I wanted to live a more satisfactory life. I could make adjustments to my diet. I could exercise regularly. I might take medication. I would definitely want to work with my doctor. Lifestyle changes would produce a healthier me. I could successfully lower my cholesterol and improve my heart health and overall outlook on life. My accomplishment would garner the support of my family and peers. Not necessarily so concerning mental health.
I was born into the same culture as many of the millions of people across the continents, a culture which devalues those living with mental illness. Popular slang illustrates the point. “Postal,” “crazy pants,” “whack-job,” “schizo.” I grew up hearing jokes about “mental defectives.” I read gossip about celebrity “meltdowns.” The social stigma was not only rampant, it was made acceptable. Losing one’s mind was the nadir of waning self control. Humor at the expense of the individual experiencing psychological trauma was de rigueur. We ridicule what we don’t understand. Imagine my thoughts when I received my diagnosis. I knew I would be disparaged, judged, vilified. I was not only branded as “other,” I believed that I was of that sort, one of the inmates taking over the asylum. It was hopeless. I was a “crazy.” I had no worth. My life meant nothing. This mindset was hard to live with.
The more I learned about my diagnosis, the more I rejected myself out of hand. It was easier to adopt the trappings of self-stigma than it was to advocate for myself. That is until I had become hospitalized a few times. By then the cries and shrieks of fellow patients had become such a commonplace occurrence that I barely noticed them, and that realization bothered me. I knew I was one of “them.” I made fun of myself to cope with the painful mental lesions suffered after finding similarities with others on the ward.
Playing against type, I spoke up when I needed something, however trivial it seemed. I would be the squeaky wheel. If I wanted to eat alone in the Quiet Room, I would just ask. When I had concerns about the medications I was being administered, I asked. If I needed more soap or toilet paper, I’d ask. I wasn’t as afraid to make requests as I’d previously been when I saw myself as just another crazy person. Going toe-to-toe with self-stigma was a new experience, and I liked it. But out of the hospital and into the real world, things changed. The self-stigma seeped back into my consciousness and I felt insignificant again, less human.
Every week I go to my therapy session. Every month I trudge across town to get my antipsychotic injection. Every other week I post a blog about my life with schizophrenia. And every day, every six hours, I take my meds no matter what. Each of these events are integral to the maintenance of my recovery, yet each of them triggers an ingrained self-stigma response. They are reminders of my mental illness. I can’t escape them.
In doing what’s required to participate in life and feel less apart from society, I find myself at odds with my identity. I’ll use person-first language when talking with someone new, but I’m also comfortable calling myself a schizophrenic since that’s the medical truth. I’ve educated myself about my illness, discussed it with psychiatric professionals, and learned to navigate the mental health system so as to advocate for myself and to assist others in understanding this illness. I yearn for equality and yet, in private moments, I still repeat to myself, “I am mentally ill. I will always be mentally ill,” and I deride myself for being so. I struggle to like myself, worried that others won’t. Because of my genetic makeup. Because of my thought processes and resultant impenetrable responses. Because mentally ill people are an easy target for bullies.
As difficult as it is to overcome self-stigma, even in small amounts, I need to do it to be the most effective advocate I can be, and for my own self-esteem and integrity as well. I want to live openly and share my experience so that others may do the same. It’s time for the public to come to grips with its outmoded attitude toward the mentally ill community. Social stigma is damaging enough without having self-stigma erode us from the inside. We can push back with education and community outreach. We can learn to love ourselves regardless of what we’ve been taught about mentally ill people. We don’t need to internalize the ignorance.