Stigma is real and it has real consequences for those of us living with mental health conditions; sometimes that consequence is that we isolate ourselves, and for others, the consequences can be deadly. This is a story about a situation of my own where I felt conflicted about whether or not to be honest about my struggles and how they have affected my life.
I’m an open person by nature. I am also a strong believer that talking openly and honestly about my mental health experiences contributes to creating a worthwhile dialogue around mental illness. I believe it fosters a sense of connection for my mentally ill brethren. One of the reasons I became a writer for HAIF was because this website brings the voices of those living with mental illness to the forefront, and in ways which make those voices feel safe and supported. Given the way I talk about my experiences to both treasured people and complete strangers, you may think that I have somehow shaken off the shackles of oppression and stigma. But much like the fluid nature of my Bipolar II Disorder, my own internal ‘shame-o-meter’ changes from day to day. Some days I am a badass bipolar warrior – shouting self-empowered slogans and standing by my right to not be ashamed of my illness. Other days it feels as though the weight of that stigma and my own self-imposed shame is too thick to wade through.
I’ve always been too hard on myself, and as a teenager, this pressure saw me rise to the challenge and finish my secondary education with flying colors, top of my class, and a bright future ahead of me. I was a clever, quick-witted child with a love of learning, and now a jones for the high of overachieving. Through high school I had a favorite teacher; she was kind and fiercely intelligent, and quickly became a mentor of mine. Upon leaving high school I was sure of myself and my ability to earn a doctorate degree, and so was my mentor. But life has a way of throwing little curveballs, and I became pregnant whilst 18yrs old and one year into my degree. This was when my mental health issues became too big for me to contain, and it became apparent to everyone around me.
The other day I received a message from a former high school teacher, explaining that my mentor was retiring and a surprise party had been planned for her – could I attend? It would be sure to mean a lot to her If I could. My mouth went dry upon reading, and my heart began hammering away in my chest. What would I say to her and all my attendant peers when they would inevitably ask me what I’m “doing with my life?” Is ‘trying to ensure I have three showers a week’ an appropriate response?’ How about ‘just attending regular psych appointments to keep myself from another admission to a psychiatric facility?’’ Or “trying to stay afloat of all responsibilities that I’m frequently drowning in?’ Would any of these answers make my mentor think less of me? No, otherwise I wouldn’t have liked her in the first place. Would these answers elicit small and uncertain laughs from my peers? Will they assume I’m joking? Will they back away a little? Will they say “Oh, but everyone thought you had such a big future;” maybe, but if they don’t, I’ll still be looking for it in their eyes.
It’s been thirteen years since high school and I often feel ashamed that I haven’t achieved those lofty and prestigious ambitions. I expected more of myself. Sometimes I feel full of angst that the nature of this illness manifests multiple episodes throughout a year (rapid cycling) prevents me from even entertaining the idea of returning to university, and it certainly makes a lifestyle of high stress incompatible with my life. There are days in which I feel at peace with the fact that this illness is something that must always be taken into account; days where I feel I can work with it and have a measure of peace with who I am as a person. Then there is the depression which quickly convinces me that I am a burden and that the only thing that stood between myself and achieving a life I can be picture-proud of, is my own internal weakness. Would those be the kind of sentiments I would afflict upon a friend with mental illness? Never. But being gentle with myself has been a lifelong struggle.
There are moments in which I feel convinced that I should attend the surprise party; thoughts that in order to live my life as a good advocate for mental health, that I must prove myself by going; as if I will be a failure to my community if I don’t put myself on the line. But these are pressures that are internal and certainly not coming from our community. I would counsel others that there is no shame in skipping the party if it deems to be too difficult– we are not responsible for educating others, and our own needs must take precedence. I’ve decided that I probably won’t go to the party. I don’t have some magical obligation to others to ‘achieve my potential’. Mental illness has changed the goal posts of potential and achievement for me, and I am not required to explain this. A life spent with self-care, community service, taking care of my family, and art has no less value than the doctor I’d planned to be. I have learned that being gentle with myself is a discussion I must have with myself every day. I may not have a doctorate degree, but I am alive and here, and that is an achievement which cannot be understated.
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