"There is nothing wrong with taking medication for mental health issues!"
I used to say things like that a lot, always followed by a statement like, "If a person needs it, we shouldn't judge them for it, it's no different than any other medicine!"
As a person who lived with depression for most of her life, I was fully in favour of people doing whatever they needed to get through it. Sure, I hadn't needed medication to manage my own depression, but if they did, I was right there with them. I would have gone to the pharmacy and given them a snappy high five when the transaction was complete. No stigma here, just support!
Then, seven years after I thought I had dealt with my own depression, I made an appointment with my counsellor to talk about stress management. She listened to what I had to say and replied by asking me how I felt about antidepressants. Suddenly, I was on the other side of all my positive affirmations.
I told her I was fine with them, of course. I repeated all those anti-stigma statements I used to declare with full confidence, first to my counsellor and then to myself, but that confidence had weakened. As I went to the doctor to get tested, I was hoping deep down that I would be diagnosed with a different problem: low iron, maybe? Hypothyroidism? Maybe it would be a vitamin D deficiency!
Part of my uncertainty with medication was the result of depression itself.
Why was I fully prepared to take iron supplements, synthetic hormones or vitamins, while hoping I wouldn't have to take antidepressants? What happened to my "it's no different than any other medication" stance?
Part of my uncertainty with medication was the result of depression itself: I felt unworthy. My depression told me that what I was feeling wasn't "bad enough" and I did not really deserve medication. Other people had worse depression than me; they were the ones who needed pills and I was somehow dishonouring their struggle if I joined their club.
That wasn't all of it, though. In the past, I had been able to fight depression on my own and now I realized that I was proud of this fact. Suddenly the medication felt like a crutch. Like weakness, or even cheating. Like I was not strong enough. Everyone struggles, after all. What did it say about me if I needed extra armour just to get through it all? I just needed to buck up and find some extra reserve of strength I didn't know I had.
I didn't realize until later what my inner struggle around taking antidepressants actually revealed: that I still held a stigma against mental health medication. My stigma hid under positive affirmations and support for (here's the catch) other people, while holding myself to a different standard. I was more than happy to give someone else all the support they needed to get on antidepressants, I just never wanted to need them myself.
I think, at the end of the day, the problem was that, despite everything, I saw the need for these particular pills as rooted in weakness. Other medical issues were simple biology, but mental health was still in a separate category in my mind. Mentally healthy people were strong, independent and capable, and people who fought through mental illness using nothing but their own grit? All the stronger. I was more than happy to help anyone else get the pills they needed to support their own weaknesses, so long as I didn't have to admit any of my own.
That's the sneakiness of stigma: it can disguise itself.
At the end of the day, I took the medication. It worked, and the chemical boost made it possible for me to face the everyday struggles that had previously been overwhelming. That's the thing about medication for anxiety and depression that I didn't know until I took it: it didn't make my life any easier. It didn't take away the challenges I faced or change me into a different kind of person. It just made me feel, once again, the way I wanted to feel: like a person who was capable of facing things — anything, really. I didn't feel weak, I felt like myself, for the first time in a year.
I doubt I'm the only one who's held this particular double standard. Who hasn't thought pills were great, so long as they weren't the one taking them? Who is certain that getting through life without pills makes them stronger, but will be "judgement free" towards other people who aren't?
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That's the sneakiness of stigma: it can disguise itself. It can hide behind supportive affirmations for friends, family and strangers on the internet, not revealing itself until you are faced with accepting it into your own life. Because, at the end of the day, believing that something is good enough for everyone else but not good enough for you still counts as stigma, pure and simple.
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