Meeting Fear with Compassion - How can you help dissolve mental illness stigma?
I have a confession. I wrestled with this blog. This Mental Illness Awareness Week blog. Really and truly struggled through it.
Never before have I had such an immeasurably difficult time writing something, anything. Not in high school as I dutifully crafted college entrance essays ("What are my future career goals and how will this university help me reach said goals? What? Um. I'm 17? I don’t know what I’m doing with my life!"). Not in undergraduate as I researched ponderous 18th century English plays and attempted to siphon from them whispers of intelligence (so I might conclude a term paper). Not even post-grad when, daily, I string together countless texts/emails/notes to my friends/coworkers/bosses/parents. Writing is something I love, something I cherish. An art, a challenge, a release. And it has always come so easily.
It was, therefore, that much more frustrating when, these past couple weeks, I endeavored to discuss mental illness awareness, a cause I champion and speak to zealously when asked, and simply could not. Too many times I opened Wordpress, convinced this time, this time, the ‘right’ words would materialize. They'd sparkle out of some unseen well of inspiration, landing in droplets here, there, and everywhere within my dry, uninspired mind. And, thereby, catalyze some kind of inspirational, wondrous literary creation.
And yet, no matter how many still minutes whispered by, minutes spent staring down my laptop screen, the "unseen well of inspiration" remained just that. Unseen.
It has taken me some time and, though self-analysis is a tricky business, I *believe* I've finally happened upon the truth. Or, rather, admitted said truth to myself.
I am a firm advocate for mental illness awareness (including but not limited to depression, anxiety, eating and personality disorders, etc.). After battling an insidious eating disorder for too, too many years (now 2 and 1/2 years in recovery!) as well as chronic anxiety and clinical depression, I made it my job to educate. To illuminate. To share my journey to recovery, my journey "back into the light." I thought, by lending mental illness a face, I might humanize those clandestine disorders. I might encourage others. I might illustrate that no one deserves a life cloaked beneath fear and shame.
Here is me - giving a “face” to mental illness. Because, hey! No one should be defined by their battles; no one is a diagnosis.
However, this “championship” was enacted under the aspect of “survivor.” Of whole and fully functional recovery. I painted myself as a fighter whose past demons were long vanquished and no longer influential.
Here’s the thing. I am a fighter and unaccountably proud of my personal triumphs, but I still have my daily battles. Amidst all the luminous, beautiful good in my life, I still have those mornings where I wake up and see nothing before me but an expanse of hours I must somehow occupy. I still have those afternoons where I’m afraid to leave my apartment because anxiety has skyrocketed and I can’t, just can’t, bear to face people. I still have those evenings where I gaze into the mirror and venomously criticize everything reflected therein.
So it seems, as I set about attempting to forge my inspirational Mental Illness Awareness Week blog, I froze. I “choked,” to use that inelegant sports metaphor. How could I motivate others when my battles, though under control, were still so very real? Why should anyone at all listen to me? What kind of champion was I, anyway?
This mindset, this very mindset, is precisely why mental illness awareness is so important. So painfully important. Historically, ire and bilious disapproval have laced my opinion of ignorance as it regards mental health. Considering the human mind’s frightful strength, I never understood psychological disorder dismissal and stigma. Our brains are, after all, the body’s most powerful muscle.
And yet, I was embarrassed by my continued cerebral trials and tribulations. I wanted to present a “healed” front. I wanted to present a “strong” front. I wanted to be an “example of recovery.” I was stigmatizing my own self.
Mental illness is not discussed nearly as often as it should. Surreptitiously swept into mankind’s cobwebbed skeleton closet, it remains a substantial, but silent presence. Why? Because of the stigma. The prejudice. The shame. The educational lag. The fear of judgment. The self-indictment. No one wants to be “weak.” “Exposed.” “Fragile.” “Cowardly.” No one wants to be “crazy.” “Insane.” “Loony.” “Messed-up.”
But discussion must ensue. It must. For only then can we begin to dissolve the misunderstandings and paint recovery’s road. Only then can we address unattended mental wounds. There are more individuals battling personal demons than not and, together, we can keep them at bay.
A mental health “champion” doesn’t need to be perfect. They don’t need to be 100% healed and 100% on top of their recovery 100% of the time. They simply need to be honest, open, and communicative. This is a lesson I must reiterate to myself as well.
So. Let’s be honest, open, and communicative together. Let’s live #stigmafree. Together.