September 12, 2013

Before I was formerly diagnosed with severe depression, OCD and anxiety I remember the daily struggle I had trying to understand how and why I always felt so down.

I walked around with a weight on my chest that never went away. It was difficult for me to come to terms with the changes that had taken place in me over a matter of months. I was losing friends because of my behaviour, and all I wanted, more than anything else, was to go back to being my happy, cheerful self. I wanted to genuinely smile and laugh until my stomach hurt.

A little while later, I had finally sought help for what I was going through and had started Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I began understanding why I thought certain things and what made me react in a certain manner. I was beginning to accept myself and my condition.

Happiness is a choice? So does that mean I chose to be sad?

One day on my way to university, I spotted a woman with a bright, colourful tote bag walking in front of me. However, my eyes landed the clear bold print sprawled across the bag: “Happiness is a choice”. I felt the familiar tightness in my chest as I went over the phrase in my head. Happiness is a choice. Happiness is a choice. Happiness is a choice. So does that mean I chose to be sad? Are millions of people who suffer from mental health illness just going through painful and traumatic experiences because they chose to? Obviously not. I was filled with sudden rage. I even considered going after the woman and asking for explanations, but alas my anxiety had other plans.

I was filled with rage at the thought that this woman, and anyone who would buy or make such a bag, genuinely thought happiness was a choice. Until then, I had always kept my mental health illness a secret because I assumed people would react negatively because of the stigma attached. I never realised that I had to talk about my illness. I had to talk about it because it was not a choice. I had to talk about it because I couldn’t let people think it was a choice. I was just coming to terms with the fact that I would have to live with this, possibly for the rest of my life. I didn't want to have to deal with people thinking I chose this for myself. Mental health stigma had never been visible to me before.

It can be difficult for people to understand depression

If it were a choice, why would anyone choose anything but happiness? The implication was clearly if you’re sad you choose to be so for attention or self-pity or out of laziness. If anything, being depressed made me want to isolate myself from everyone. Attention was possibly the last thing I wanted.

I realise now that anger was not the right emotion. I now know how difficult it is for someone who doesn’t have a mental health illness to understand just how debilitating it can be. I have no reason to be angry with her, or those like her. When I think of that woman today I’m filled with sadness that I never got to explain to her how I, and many like me, do not chose to be like this.

Now if the opportunity arises I try to explain and encourage dialogue, however daunting and challenging it may be to speak about my experiences. It breaks my heart that on top of fighting for their lives, many also have to fight against the ignorance that surrounds their illness, but it makes me truly proud to see how far we have come to conquer the stigma.

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