“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls…At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of. They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.” – Carrie Fisher
Quick note: everything here comes from my own experience and my own perspective. If you think I’ve misrepresented anything, please comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Since I started this blog, I’ve started hearing from people about once every other week or so who wants to share their story about mental illness and connect with someone else they know is going through it, too. It’s something that I don’t take lightly, and I consider it one of the highest honors that someone would feel comfortable sharing their story with me. Often times, it’s someone who isn’t ready to talk publicly about their struggles, and I can see why. The stigma surrounding mental illness is strong, and despite the number organizations working toward suicide prevention, it still remains the 10th leading cause of death in America.
Of course, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be pouring as many resources as possible into prevention, but based on what I’ve seen as I explore the subject more, mental illness in general is so stigmatized that it leads to levels of embarrassment and shame that create roadblocks to reaching out and seeking help, leaving people these very manageable diseases untreated, and sending them down the path to where suicide can feel like the only option.
When I first started writing and talking about this, it was scary. I was uncomfortable using words like “depression” and “suicidal ideation” and “psychiatric hospital”, even though they’re all relevant. I felt like it would be too jarring for people to read, having gotten so used to euphemisms and non-specifics.
But in the interest of doing my part- however small- in normalizing mental illness, here’s what I’m working with (per my official diagnosis): “Major depressive disorder (severe) with anxious stress”. I have four prescriptions: a daily antidepressant, a daily slow-release anti-anxiety medication, an as-needed anti-anxiety medication (for the really rough moments), and a sort of multi-use medication that serves as a sleeping pill/antidepressant/appetite stimulant (to counteract the effects of God knows which of the other ones is killing my appetite). I see a therapist once a week, and I have Electroconvulsive therapy with ketamine injections once a month. [so, you know…just a couple small things]. I’m what’s considered “medication resistant”, so I’ve cycled through most of the traditional medications, finally landing on one that helps enough to (mostly) let me go about my day and keep some level of productivity. I’d say I’m at about 70% or so, with the help of all of the above.
Even after all this time, and all of these posts, writing that out was a little terrifying. It still feels that a list like this has the potential to alienate people who haven’t experienced mental illness, either themselves, or through a friend or loved one going through it. Will I come across as completely unhinged and unpredictable? Am I making myself sound like the mayor, city manager, and comptroller of Bummersville? Are people going to tiptoe around me for fear that I’ll snap, or will they just start avoiding me for being straight up bonkers? Of course that’s the stigma talking, but it makes me realize just how deeply ingrained those thoughts are.
So what does the stigma around mental illness look like? It looks like these dumbass memes:
honestly, fuck this
It looks like all of us making jokes about celebrities whose mental illnesses take the form of a very public meltdown. It’s seeing people who take medication and go to therapy as weak, dramatic, taking the easy way out, or just following a trend (“of course you’re in therapy- isn’t that, like, mandatory in LA?” – something someone actually said to me once). Seeing people who self-harm as just looking for attention. Saying your illness is invalid because it’s not “because of something”, or if it is triggered by an event, asking when you’ll “get over it”. It’s judging people who take medication, but it’s also writing off those who self-medicate so they can find that tiny bit of much-needed oblivion without having to get professional help (because, you know…stigma).
So what’s the reality of mental illness? It’s pulling yourself out of bed and going about your day, taking care of your shit, despite the full-body exhaustion and the constant tornado of thoughts running through your head, telling you that you’re The Very Worst, and that the next catastrophe is right around the corner. You focus on taking care of your pets, your family, your job, and maintaining much-needed friendships, while a never-ending list of terrible things that could happen takes up a large percentage of your concentration.
And that’s a good day. On the bad days, you can’t get out of bed, so you lie there, consumed with guilt that you can’t manage to fulfill your basic responsibilities- that you’ve let everyone down. We’ve all had moments like this, but for someone with mental illness these thoughts and feelings can be unrelenting and go on for weeks, years, decades. People who deal with this shit are so fucking strong, and they should be seen as the badasses they are. And people who reach a point where they can’t do it anymore…they’re not cowards, and they’re not weak. Suicide is awful, that goes without saying. But having been in a place where I was just so exhausted from all of it that it briefly sounded like the only way I could have a break, it’s not just an easy out that a person decides to just…do. It’s the last resort for someone in so much pain, they don’t remember what it felt like to feel at peace. So maybe instead of passing judgment and making dumbass holier-than-thou posts on social media, we could start treating mental illness the way we treat other diseases. Encouraging people to get help, and making it clear how impressive it is to fight the disease with everything you’ve got, despite it sucking all of the motivation and energy out of you. And, you know, just generally not being dicks to people who are dealing with some really, really difficult shit, but instead providing understanding and much-needed support.