I’ve never been great at fitting in. I was the shy, anxious child at primary school who once slipped through the gates and tried to go home in the middle of the day because it all felt too much.
I was the socially-awkward teenager who spent her secondary school days trying to work out which squad she belonged to.
I was the university student who always felt on the fringes of whatever was going on, making drinking buddies but no meaningful friendships.
I was the postgraduate student living in a house of undergraduates, silently cursing them for their loud music and piles of dirty dishes while putting in hours and hours of study.
“Otherness” is not a new experience for me. But the otherness that comes with mental illness is a whole different ball game.
Great strides are being made into removing the stigma of mental illness, but there’s still a big, big difference between the “socially acceptable” face of mental illness and the grim, twisted, life-shattering reality.
With one in four people suffering from mental health problems, there’s no longer any shame in admitting that you’re depressed, or have anxiety. Antidepressants are some of the most commonly prescribed medications and counseling is no longer a shameful secret.
But other mental illnesses seem different. It’s what I’ve lives with, and I feel there’s nothing “socially acceptable” about it. It’s ugly. It’s violent. It’s shocking. And it makes me “other.”
My otherness is marked out by the scars that draw the map of my illness across my body, scars put there by my own hand. When I go swimming with my children, or wear a sleeveless top on a hot day, I am “other.”
It’s marked out by the medication I take every day: not just antidepressants, but antipsychotics and, at times, benzodiazepines. When I’m out for the evening with friends and my speech is slurred and my eyelids droopy, I am “other.”
It’s in the psychology appointments that I go to every Thursday, to help me unpick the chaos that mental illness has wrought in my life. When I walk into the building from which the community mental health team operates, I am “other.”
When I can no longer help with the church work that I loved so much because of my mental health, and have to sit back and watch while everything carries on without me, I am “other.”
My otherness comes from the time I spent in an inpatient psychiatric unit. There’s no shame in being admitted to a medical hospital with a physical health issue. But my stint in the “loony bin” definitely makes me “other.”
When I stand in the school playground and fight to suppress the waves of panic rolling over me, instead of joining in with the daily chatter, I am “other.”
When people find out that I almost lost my life to suicide – a feeling you can only understand if you’re truly desperate and truly lost, there’s no doubt that I am “other.”
And do you know what? I hate it. Because I’m not the threat, the danger, the scary “other” person everyone seems to think I am.
Yes, I have a mental illness, but I still love, care, work, play, pray. I raise my two beautiful children. I have a successful career as a freelance writer. I have a home that I take care of to the best of my ability. I have a husband who I try to look after. I have friends who mean the world to me.
I love swimming in cold lakes and rivers, and reading in the garden on sunny days. I love to sing in church. I love pulling on my pajamas at the end of the day and snuggling up to watch something trashy on TV. I love curling my hair and painting my nails for nights out. I love digging through the rails in charity shops, looking for a bargain. I love going to the cinema and for cocktails with friends. I love to bake cakes, and give them to people who’ll enjoy them. I love pasta, chocolate, cheese and good red wine.
I’m normal – except for my mental illness, that malfunction in my brain that makes me different. So please, please, before you raise your eyebrows at my scars, or ignore my text because you’re afraid of what I might ask, or pretend you haven’t seen me in the school playground, or worry about whether I’m safe to babysit your child, please just give me a chance.
Because I don’t want to be “other” any more.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
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Thinkstock photo via tommaso79