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Fighting Against the Stigma Toward Mental Illness as a Small Business Owner

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When I started writing and talking in public about my experience with chronic illness (fibromyalgia) and mental illness — clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder specifically — it was mostly so I could help my friends and family understand a little bit about what it was like to have these illnesses. Then it became something for others, a way to reach out and tell people they are not alone, a way to show people who don’t live with a mental illness that we aren’t “crazy” (“We won’t bite”). And it was for me, so I could prove to myself that I can do this thing called life, while hopefully making the world a little bit of a better place for people like me. In doing so I made connections with people who I otherwise would not have known or related to.

When I was first diagnosed I worried about what people would think, what people would say, and how it would affect my job if my employer found out. There were so many things I didn’t know, and so much worry. Eventually I quietly connected with people and opened myself up to others, and that’s when I decided to speak up, because it wasn’t just me and that wasn’t just my experience. There are so many people out there in similar situations. I shouldn’t have to feel that way; no one should. No one should go through this life thinking they are crazy and alone. And just like that, it was settled that I would no longer be silent about my journey. I was going to out on my big girl pants and speak up.

I am so glad I did. From the first moment I walked out in front of a group of people to share my story, all that shame went away. I wasn’t embarrassed, I was a warrior.

But then things changed. I am working on starting my own preschool and getting things up and running, which is stressful on a regular day without throwing COVID-19 into the mix.

The whole process has been a roller coaster of emotions that at the best of times has left me in a state only comparable to a train wreck. I worry that my mental health will be negatively affected by doing this. But I also know my anxiety lies; I do know what I am doing and even though at times I find myself curled up into a ball in the corner overwhelmed by the enormity of responsibility I am taking on, I know this is what I want. I am trained for this, and I have years of experience. However, there was one thing I didn’t think about when I decided to become a business owner. One thought that took me right back to where I started: people will know.

People will know I have anxiety and depression. Will they still trust me to be responsible for and educate their young children? I am currently still processing the likelihood of a third diagnosis, which is overwhelming on its own. I know I will be OK with it in the end and confirmation will make things better for me in the long run, but it still brings me back to those questions I haven’t thought about in years. What will people think? What will people say?

I’ve been an early childhood educator for 10 years. In that time I have become very vocal about my mental illness, and to my knowledge that has not affected other’s opinions of me. Most people probably don’t even know, and I’ve never once had a parent say something like “I don’t want her to teach my child she is crazy!” So why would that change if I became the owner/director? I don’t know.

Friends and family have advised me to be silent, to stop writing or at least stop sharing my work and just be more private about it. That it will be bad for business and people don’t need to know. They are looking out for me with the best intentions; I’m not angry with them, and because of the society we currently live in, they are not wrong. I’m ashamed to say these are things I’ve thought and felt all on my own as well and long before anyone raised the subject with me.

There are times it is all I can think about. Over the last few weeks I have put my brain to work in trying to find a solution that will calm my anxiety over this. This is what I have come up with so far:

  • Stop writing
  • Be quiet and let someone else speak up
  • Give myself a pen name
  • Or just do it all anyway

Those first three options feel like a huge step back; can I really just hide myself away? After all the years I spent working at embracing who I am, and owning my own story. Can I live with myself if I close that door? Could I really give myself a pen name? That doesn’t feel right. If I am going to write something why should I be ashamed of it and put a fake name on it? If I write and speak out anyway, will I lose business? Will parents trust me to educate their children? I don’t know.

The only option that feels right is continuing on as I am. It’s also the most terrifying option.

This is the society we live in. A world where having a mental illness is looked down upon. People don’t understand and are less accepting.

Society, film and television tell them we are crazy and unstable. Sadly if I do continue to write and speak out, there will be people who look at me and think “I don’t want someone like her teaching my child.”

A banner promoting The Mighty's new No Shame group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Struggling with self-judgment? The No Shame group is a safe space to talk about the things that tend to make us feel bad about ourselves and how to overcome those challenges. Click to join.

So what do I do? Do I pretend to be someone else? Do I forget about a preschool to avoid the issue altogether? Can I have the best of both worlds? Can I handle the rejection that will come with my continuing to be vocal? Probably not. Can I still be myself and hide my true self away? Definitely not.

It seems like such an insignificant problem and a ridiculous worry, especially with the state of the world we are currently living in. However when this is your life, when fighting against the shame and stigma of mental illness is routine and something you face on an almost daily basis, you know all too well the consequences it brings. The fear and anxiety is legitimate. The waiting for that negative reaction is constant and it never goes away.

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash

Originally published: August 23, 2020
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