How I Allow Others to See the More Human Side of Mental Illness
If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
The gym smelled a bit like a warehouse would smell but mostly like sweat. I was not feeling it, but I had decided to show up to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practice anyway. Fake it ‘til you make it. I struggled through the warm up wondering why I had come here tonight. My anxiety was making me irritable and my depressive mood was killing my motivation and concentration. Next came the techniques featured in tonight’s class. I barely paid attention, focusing more on the dull ache at the base of my neck and my negative self-talk telling me I should not have come. Finally it was time to spar, or roll, as we call it in our sport.
I looked around for a partner for the first round and saw that most of the men I was friends with — felt comfortable with — were already partnered up. I waved at someone on the other side of the mats. He made a forward circular motion with his finger and shouted above the noise “Next round!” I looked around and realized I would have to partner up with a black belt I did not particular like. He was usually crass and loud and had a history of making women in the gym feel uncomfortable.
Jiu Jitsu is done in a kimono-like uniform called a gi and the gi is crucial because we grab the fabric in different grips to help us achieve and maintain positions. We started our round and he grabbed a sleeve grip, making my gi sleeve ride up my arm. He looked down at the scars that run lengthwise up and down my wrist and without seeming to give it a thought, he asked “What…..d’you try to kill yourself or something?”
“Great.” I thought as I hung my head. “Not tonight. This is so not what I needed tonight.”
In that moment my irritability resurfaced and all the memories of having strangers stare at me on buses, having nurses give me a pitying look when they drew blood, of having children ask me how this happened, came flying back. I did not want to hide anymore. I did not want to diminish or belittle the war I had endured to get to where I am today. No way. I didn’t fight this battle to be ashamed of it. I am a warrior.
I looked at him and, calmly, I said; “Yes.”
I could see the shock on his face. I could see all the gears turning in his head as he realized how gauche his question was. I could see his surprise at receiving an honest answer.
I’ve often had people stare at my scars. They’re most often too shy or too afraid to ask about them, but they’re fascinated. Sometimes they give me a knowing look, sometimes they shake their head or they pat me softly on the shoulder.
I wear my insides carved into my outside. The ugliest parts of me are on display.
This man stared because my scars made him uncomfortable. He stared because they were something he couldn’t understand, something he had never experienced. His flippant question and the joke in his tone made that clear.
Because we can’t see mental illness, we refuse to acknowledge it. We refuse to talk about it out loud, and most importantly, we refuse to allow people to be honest about what they experience. When confronted with it, we’re awkward, we shy away, we lack compassion. The chemical imbalance in my brain doesn’t show up on scans, it doesn’t show up on my skin, in my breathing, as a broken bone. It’s perceived as a choice, a failure, anything but a medical condition
Stigma silences us. It stops us from speaking up. It stunts discussion and creates discomfort and judgment. And the thing with stigma is it’s insidious. It creeps in as we form more and more opinions and misconceptions and eventually grows into something much more harmful and dangerous.
Stigma comes from two things. It comes from shame and guilt. Shame is created by judgment and lack of compassion from others, while guilt builds internally as we judge ourselves for what we perceive as shortcomings. And that’s what I did my whole life, catalogue my shortcomings into a convincing dissertation of why I wasn’t good enough.
Because of this, I spent years hiding the illness, hiding the pain. I lied to most people around me. I refused to share the full truth of what I was feeling, the full truth of what I was experiencing.
“How are you?”
Perfunctory, innocuous responses. God forbid I make someone uncomfortable with the truth, with authenticity. We have developed social standards and boundaries around what we are willing to discuss and how open we are willing to be. We’ve decided what is acceptable to share and what makes us overbearing, rude or awkward.
Research has shown that talking about suicide out loud, openly and candidly greatly reduces the chances of someone who is suicidal going through with an attempt. Yet, we dismiss thoughts of suicide as attention seeking, as exaggeration or drama. Like this training partner, we use the word in jest, we make snide remarks.
The last time I tried to kill myself I needed 14 stitches. The time before that I was in a coma for days.
I used to tell people I didn’t go to graduate school after finishing my Bachelor’s degree because I was sick, because of health problems. This is all true but omitting the fact that these concerns were psychiatric instead of physical avoids judgment, doubt and stigma. I once worked with a woman who said of her ex-husband: “He spent two weeks in the psych ward. He’s a total psycho.” Spending two weeks in the Intensive Care Unit to recover from brain surgery would never warrant such a comment. We don’t give mental health patients the same kind of respect or the benefit of the doubt.
When it comes to mental health and mental illness, I’ve learned to be comfortable with openness. Both in terms of what I share and in terms of what I receive. By becoming a safe space for mental illness, I aim to give people permission to seek help, to remind them they are worthy of help just like I was, that they deserve support just like I did, that they are valuable humans just like I am. Through my recovery, I’ve learned to be comfortable with sharing my story. I’ve learned that it can be extremely powerful in letting people know they are not alone, and allowing people to see a more human and real side of mental illness. I share my story in the hopes of encouraging people to understand better and to help combat stigma.
I’ve been asked before what I would say if someone offered to wave a magic wand and take away my illnesses and my symptoms. There was a time I would have begged for that. I would have begged to be different, better, normal. But now? That war changed me, the pain molded me.
There’s something about realizing you will struggle with an illness for the rest of your life. Realizing that suicidal thoughts will be chronic, coming and going, unwanted and unasked. You might think it would be disheartening or scary, but really there is a sense of relief and freedom from learning this. It gave me the chance to give myself some credit, to give myself allowance to experience what I experience.
There are still difficult times, but I’ve learned to trust the team of medical professionals who help me and to be honest and open with them. That being said, I’ve learned to advocate for myself and know that I know my mental health best and need to have agency in my treatment. I’ve also learned my strengths; I’ve learned how to be self-aware and to recognize when I need extra support and how to manage my symptoms.
Recovery is not usually linear. There will be steps forwards and backwards, highs and lows. What matters is that you keep going, you keep moving forward. I’ve seen how hard I can fight this thing, and all I know is I’m going to keep trying. I’m not going to tell you it will be easy, but I will tell you this: it will be worth it. Don’t hope to be better, different or normal. Don’t be ashamed of your challenges; be proud of how far you’ve come.
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