"There is no stigma related to mental illness," the comment read. "You're the one creating the stigma by even writing about your mental illness." I felt my cheeks burn and my heart pound; the rhythm of its beat thrashing back and forth in my chest. Anger mixed with humiliation. After all, I've been writing about a society which denies that there is even such a thing as mental illness. I've been repeating in various writing forums that until we acknowledge its severity and its epidemic proportions as being equal to that of any physical ailment, there will be no strides made towards finding cures and solutions. Worse yet, those who suffer, will have to continue suffering in silence.
I was angry when I read that comment. I'm still angry. There is no stigma? Really? Because when my co-worker discovered that I was seeing a psychiatrist, she also whispered, "Don't worry, I won't tell anybody." Would she have been so quick to keep a secret I hadn't asked her to keep if I was going to see an obstetrician?
But I have since realized that I have no right to be angry at anyone for their reaction. Despite my own mental illness, although I should be advocating for acceptance, I'm devaluing it by the words I have used to speak of it; to describe it. Instead of letting words such as "depression," "suicide," and "mania," be spoken out loud; instead of jutting my jaw a little further and admitting that I have mental disorders, I lighten the mood by speaking of my illness as "craziness."
I don't get to be angry with society for denying and/or ignoring the needs of those who are mentally ill, when I refer to myself as crazy and coo coo? I shouldn't be avoiding eye contact and clearing my throat when asked why I keep clenching my jaw or rubbing my obvious sore stomach. I should be able to answer that these are side effects from the medication regimen my psychiatrist has me on to stabilize my bipolar disorder.
So how can I expect society to be on board when I myself am ashamed of this? I hate that one day I'm so joyful it's almost creepy, and the next day, I will not get out of bed. Going from being monosyllabic to Chatty Cathy is weird. And I know it now because in my more stable moments I can see clearly, and I am able to look back on a life lived vicariously through the mental illness which guided its direction. I'm one of the "Worried Well" my psychiatrist has told me. I've been able to function very well, but now my coping skills have been worn down to a nub.
And when I tell people this, when I overshare, I see in myself a crazy person clamouring to escape from beyond the bars of the brain in which I've imprisoned her. So do I feel crazy? Yes. Yes I do. Should I be saying I'm crazy? Nope. Should I begrudge anyone for telling me that there is no stigma associated with mental illness? No. Not until I have the strength to just say it out loud myself; say that I'm struggling.
In my mind, I know that others do not zoom through emotions faster than they do a bag of Peanut M&Ms. But when I say it out loud, when I say "I'm bipolar," it shouldn't be followed by me ducking behind the nearest object so I don't have to see the look of surprise and discomfort on people's faces. The look of "But she doesn't look crazy..." Because what does crazy look like?
And therein lays the issue. Crazy doesn't have a face.
In order to further be part of a movement which strives to promote the existence of mental illnesses, I have to be able to speak my truth. Not just write it. Not hide behind my laptop. But say it out loud, and not say it with a smirk and a wink, and a jolly, "I'm crazy." This isn't helping anyone. I'm only further promoting the notion that mental illness needs to remain in the closet.
I heard an ad. A teenage boy is talking to his fellow student. They see a girl in the distance, and the boy says, "There goes that crazy girl," and the girl standing with him says, "She's so weird." This scene and these words replay several times before the girl finally says, "She's not crazy. She's sick." Cue the part where the ad is brought to us by Bell Let's Talk, stressing to the audience that language matters. I was both relieved that the message is getting out there but ashamed that I wasn't part of the solution.
Until people can accept that there is stigma, those of us who do suffer in silence; those of us who are too embarrassed to say out loud that we have an illness -- we need to refrain from using a vocabulary which only serves to further set back the progress. Or better yet, I need to refrain from using vocabulary which only serves to further set back the progress. I can't be taken seriously if I can't say out loud, "No, I'm not crazy. I'm suffering from a mental illness."
So to the people who desperately want to believe there is no stigma, you're wrong. But to your credit, even those of us who suffer from mental illness continue to perpetuate the stigma. With more ads like the one described above, change will occur, one enlightened mind at a time. And hopefully one day very soon, I will be an enthusiastic participant in this movement.
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