I have a mental illness. I have suffered from major depression and an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) since I was 14 years old. There I said it... I've been afraid to say it. Instead I have withdrawn from the world, and hoped and prayed that I would be "normal" again someday. Because nobody wants to witness the darkness of the creature within me, holding me back with sharp claws from my lightness of being.
Our society, although frantic to overcome the negative perceptions attached to those who aren't representative of the healthy majority, has a long way to go in freeing those of us who are cemented in the reality of illness, psychiatric or otherwise.
Family, friends, even physicians are hesitant to attach the label. Excuses are found to deviate from the fact that more hours are spent under the covers than standing upright. "She's just lazy," they'll say. Or "She's overworked." The very concept that I can still lead a productive work day is a contraindication of my depression, and as such, has my psychiatrist busily leafing through his textbook while I huddle in the fetal position crying on his couch. The conundrum baffles, not because my symptoms do not fall within the DSM-IV criteria for major depressive disorder, more specifically impaired function in an occupational setting; but because the very diagnosis will further impair societal expectations.
Parents staunchly defend their child's mental health, not only because they themselves fear the repercussions, but also because the very admission of psychiatric illness might further stunt social development. In essence, to label is to deny healing, when in reality, as someone who has lived with an undiagnosed mental illness for 30 years, the label of major depressive disorder and EDNOS was not only liberating, but answered questions I had feared to ask. Why did I stand close enough to the curb that I could feel the vortex of speed as the oncoming semi-trucks motored past during rush hour? Why did I entertain thoughts of jumping off the bridge onto the frozen river?
Diagnosis was freeing, and yet those in my life were more agitated by my new label than I was. Rather than embrace my treatment and acclaim my medication, family was quick to point out the side-effects. "That didn't work for my friend," they'd tell me. Rather than encourage me in my recovery, suggestions that it could be overcome with a more positive outlook became a mantra. The reality that I was incapable of a more positive outlook seemed absurd and incomprehensible. "We've never had this problem before. It's not because of anything we've done."
Of course it's not. And nobody suggests this. Yet society fears mental illness not because of the pain people who are afflicted with one must deal with, rather because society fears that mental illness is a direct reflection on its structure, demands and expectations. Although "Mental Illness Awareness Week" is a lovely concept, it only serves to validate those of us who already understand the stigma. It does not enlighten those who already have a pre-existing perception of mental illness as being a defect.
This is not to suggest that mental illness awareness campaigns are unnecessary. However, in order to enhance their efficacy, those of us with mental illness need to be proactive in our cause, and not be stunted by the stigma. And, so, in an effort to practice what I'm preaching, this is me. Coming out.
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