May 21, 2012

Psycho, nutter, loon, mad, mentally ill. To be honest it doesn’t matter what terminology is used, they all spell out the same thing: I’m different, an outcast, not "normal".

From the moment a referral was made to mental health services I was suddenly a different person. It didn’t matter that five minutes ago I was like everyone else, just a fifteen year old girl. Suddenly I was set apart and needed different treatment to everyone else.

The thing with mental illness is it doesn’t matter who you were before you received a diagnosis. It doesn’t matter if you had everything or if in fact you had nothing; if you had a hundred friends or one. All that matters, seemingly, is the connotations associated with the diagnosis you are handed.

For probably two years I ran from myself, denying the illness I had, desperately trying to prove to those around me that I was “normal”, that I could be like them. I wasn’t particularly successful to be fair. It’s hard to see past the fact that someone is literally starving themselves, that they are no longer attending school and that their every waking minute is spent trying to run away from themselves.

I was stigmatising myself and it felt like the world was too.

I personally couldn’t ignore the whisperings about me: the murmurings of fellow classmates, the remarks from teachers, the distancing from friends. It was not because they were unkind but because they made me even more aware I was ill. I was stigmatising myself and it felt like the world was too.

My absence didn’t help, but trying to be the “old” me, when I and the people around me were treating me as different, just felt impossible. I had this label now, I had this word associated with me I couldn’t keep hiding, but there was no way I felt ready to stand up to it.

I had no education and no knowledge about what it meant

Seven years ago when I first fell into the pit of mental illness I had no education and no knowledge about what it meant. I, like my peers, went by the limited awareness we had picked up through media and sensationalised stories. Anorexia: a choice to starve, a way of seeking attention, a way of finding control. Depression: seen as a weakness, an inability to cope or an easy way out. Schizophrenia: a danger, a loner, a psycho. A word can be an extremely powerful thing, not least when the meaning is not fully understood and I felt this power, every little part.

I never really did return back to my school. My last four months were spent in hospital and the handful of exams I took were taken sat in a room cornered off from the main school hall so I don’t really know what the people that watched the change in me really saw or thought. I heard the words muttered in the corners of classrooms, I felt the looks as I walked by but I don’t know if the whole stigma I felt was really there or created due to my own embarrassment at being classed as mentally ill.

Mental health awareness week isn’t just a chance to stand up and recognise mental illness

Mental health awareness week isn’t just a chance to stand up and recognise mental illness. It’s a chance to let those suffering in silence, those running away, those too afraid to admit to even themselves that they are ill that it is ok. A word doesn’t define who we are; it doesn’t make us any different to the people we were last week, it doesn’t set us up for failure and it doesn’t mean we are alone.

I will never fully escape the stigma from the outside world but at least I know now that I don’t have to keep running from myself. I’m not embarrassed about who I am, I’m not embarrassed about the labels I seem to be collecting and I’m not embarrassed about how I feel. I’m me, I always will be and always have been and that’s something I should never feel obliged to hide.

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