I never really thought of myself as someone who suffered much from stigma surrounding mental illness. I’m open when discussing being diagnosed and living with anxiety and depression. My friends, family and colleagues have also been generally very supportive. I’m very lucky.
Recently, I looked more closely at the language I use when talking about my own mental illness and realised I was stigmatising myself. Far from being put down, abused or humiliated by other people, I was the one who had a problem with my condition.
When someone sees me taking my antidepressants and asks what they are, I laugh and tell them they’re my ‘crazy pills’. If I’m leaving work early or miss a night out because I have a therapy session and someone asks why I have therapy I tell them it’s because ‘I’m mad’. I use humour and flippancy to deter any further conversation, ending any possible enquiry with a joke and a move to a different topic.
what made me... belittle my illness when talking about it to others
I wondered where this came from, what made me react this way and belittle my illness when talking about it to others. From the nights spent lying awake, the days spent crying and the hours spent in confusion, panic or terror, I know this isn’t a small issue for me. My mental illness has had a huge impact and has been an important presence in my life, so why do I trivialise it for others?
Part of it has to do with manners. I’m a well raised British person and God knows I’d do anything to avoid making someone else feel uncomfortable and mental illness just isn’t a comfortable topic. If I start talking about the fact that I suffer from depression and anxiety and I take pills/need therapy to cope with that, we enter very personal territory and there’s a risk the person asking will not be prepared for that and will not feel comfortable with the turn our conversation has taken.
Some of it is bravado. I dread the day someone looks at me with pity
Some of it is bravado. I dread the day someone looks at me with pity or tells me how awful it must be to live with such an illness. I’m a strong and brave person in my own mind and I would be mortified to be offered sympathy, especially for something I’m actually dealing with.
Maybe it has to do with the complexity of the situation. The broken arm analogy is used a lot to discuss attitudes towards depression. If someone had a broken arm it would be obvious what was wrong with them, treatment would be easy to plan and administer and nobody would feel awkward about it. If I had broken my arm, I would probably be able to tell you about the source of the break, the initial diagnosis, the treatment and my future outlook within about two minutes. If I tell you I have depression, who knows where to start (or stop) with the other details.
Another option is, of course, that the reaction I would get might not be favourable.
Another option is, of course, that the reaction I would get might not be favourable. Not in a dreadful way; it’s entirely unlikely in my work or social life that someone would react with horror or run screaming from the mental. If I’m honest, a far subtler but far worse response could be forthcoming. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me that when they ‘feel a little bit under the weather’ or are ‘feeling a bit down’ they like to ‘keep busy’ or ‘pull themselves together’.
This kind of misunderstanding is almost always entirely well meant and comes with no malice or intent to hurt, but it can be devastating. Firstly there’s the pain of being open about something you find (or have found) incredibly distressing only to have it reduced to the level of a bad hair day or a dose of the flu. Secondly, there’s the horrible jealousy you feel knowing that some people can just pull themselves together and you simply can’t; try as you might, you can’t. This can be enough to spark off a whole dip in your depression: hey, once again, everyone else is getting up and getting on and there’s just you left behind.
But if someone asked me... surely I should be able to tell them without turning it into a joke
But if someone asked me, openly and honestly, what was wrong, surely I should be able to tell them without turning it into a joke. I’ve made a decision now to be more honest in discussing mental illness, particularly my own.
By joking I’m missing an opportunity to be open about a situation that’s important to me, to be clear with someone about something that’s really affected me. I’m also denying this person the chance to learn more about mental illness, to engage in a sensible conversation with someone who has personal experience of it and the ability to start to understand how it really feels.
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