Society still paints with a broad brush when it comes to The Other. We’re raised from an early age to be aware of our differences rather than our similarities, which, when misdirected, can result in such ugliness as racism, sexism, and ageism. Mental illness is the last target for intolerant behavior, the last quarry for the cruel, because mental illness by its nature knows no division.
I am always living with mental illness. It doesn’t magically go away because I take medication. The drugs help me manage my symptoms. Therapy helps with questions about the effect of the symptoms on my psyche. Psychiatry helps with the basic practical details of the meds. It all keeps me out of the hospital, which I appreciate. Medicated, I’m better suited to navigate life’s challenges. I can almost feel normal.
Even though I’d been going to the ER regularly for panic attacks, I hadn’t accepted that I was struggling with mental illness on any level. Stigma confronted me at every turn; I was dealing with the same stereotypes that anyone influenced by culture would. I couldn’t make sense of my life.
I advocate for myself, and am comfortable with my diagnosis, but I’m reluctant to offer it up casually, being concerned that the stigma against it will hinder any success I might have had in making a new friend. I wish it were different, so I approach it as such. Most of the time. Self-stigma tends to be the one area where I falter. Unwittingly, I will derail my own train, partially due to an inherent shyness, and otherwise to a general discomfort in my own skin.
When I told my case manager about dark thoughts impeding my enjoyment of simple things like watching movies or reading a book, she reminded me that those thoughts could be generated by my disorder. Not meaning to be dismissive, but to simplify things. It made sense to me.
On Christmas Day, a dear friend whom I’d made in the psych ward two years before, dropped by and cooked me a lovely Christmas dinner, rightly assuming that I hadn’t had time to go shopping. The cupboards were bare. She cooked a lovely meal. I talked about my various stays and she reminded me that she’d been to visit me at one of the hospitals.
It’s as if I’m stuck in a dream, watching a movie about my life, but I don’t know the plot, the characters are completely foreign, and I’m the only person in the theater. I’m both involved and detached simultaneously, unable to make connections with others or the outside world.
Coming out as mentally ill is hard, or it can be. It’s one thing to discuss symptoms and solutions with a doctor; it’s something altogether different to disclose a diagnosis to a friend, family member, or coworker. Making the decision to be open about one’s mental illness can help strengthen already solid bonds of friendship and familiarity. Conversely, it can create distance between people, depending on their levels of comfort, education, and acceptance.
I feel guilty for having a mental illness. I understand that it’s likely a genetic disorder, but rational thought is hard to come by. The internalized guilt I feel is the very definition of self-stigma. That’s how I choose to see it. If I’m going to advocate against stigmatizing mentally ill people, then I guess I’d better start with me.