Suppose I were to tell you that I had a bad heart or a broken leg. My guess is you would probably respond with a sympathetic ear and an offer to help.
But suppose I told you I was hearing voices, had debilitating panic attacks, or repeated suicidal thoughts. I would probably watch as you avoided my gaze and shifted uncomfortably in your seat. Or, I’d hear you say something like, “Don’t be silly. Stop talking about those things.” “Just think positively.” Or even, “Snap out of it.”
The truth is, there’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, even amongst those who are otherwise well informed and intelligent. An even greater truth is that even those who are otherwise well informed and intelligent can be struck by a debilitating mental illness. Mental illness does not discriminate. It can strike anyone, anywhere. Even those who feel impervious to its reality. I think I was one of those people.
I always thought I was a strong and ‘in control’ person. I avoided the so-called ‘messy emotions’ and put forth an image of someone who was consistently put together. I would have responded like the hypothetical person above if someone had told me about their mental illness. I never believed it could happen to me. But it did.
I had just come back to Canada after a year overseas, and I wasn’t prepared for the reality of the transition. I struggled immensely, and I never really came out of it. After a few months, I went to university and the darkness followed. There were good times, but inevitably, I would end up feeling swallowed by a deep sadness. I remember a friend saying to me on different occasions, “I think you have depre—”. But each time she couldn’t finish, because I cut her off with an emphatic “No! That couldn’t happen to me!”
Months and months went by, but nothing changed. I was getting more and more desperate as hope slipped through my fingers. As much as I hated to admit it, I began to consider the thought that she may be right. Finally, with much agonizing, I went to the doctor. My worst fears were confirmed. I had depression.
For some time I couldn’t even say the word, because the reality was too painful to bear. Besides, I believed I could figure out a way to ‘kick it’ on my own. If I tried hard enough, prayed long enough, trusted God enough, then somehow it would disappear like a bad dream.
It was an extremely lonely and isolating place to be. I was terrified of others, especially those in my church, finding out about my ‘condition.’ I thought that if they knew, they would see me as weak and reject me. It’s not that anyone said these things outright, but mental illness was never a topic of discussion, so by virtue of omission, it became a breeding ground for assumption and fear. So, while I wasted away inside, I put on a good face and pretended I was fine.
But nothing seemed to help. I fell further into what I was starting to think was hell on earth, and I lost hope that my life could change. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I decided to try medication. It sounds like an easy decision, but to me it confirmed the fact that I was weak and a failure. My fear increased because of what might happen when I would have to disclose these things on applications or such things in the future.
Medication was a long road full of changing doses and types to try to figure out what worked for me. I was very blessed to have doctors that cared, supportive family and friends, and a good counsellor. After four long years of being on and off different medications, I was able to come off slowly with the advice of my doctor. Words can’t properly express the joy I experience when I say that, by God’s grace, I have been off medication for just over one year, and depression free ever since. I never believed that this could happen, but it has, and I am so grateful.
Now, having lived through mental illness myself, I’m no longer the seat-shifting, gaze-avoiding, stigma-enforcer. I know what it can be like, and that’s why I’m speaking up. When we speak about it, we command the fog of misunderstanding, stigma, assumptions, and fear to flee. We clear the air and make space for truth. We’ve learned to accept and help those with bad hearts and broken legs, so why not those with depression, schizophrenia, or anxiety?
Let’s ‘shhhh’ those people who tell us to be silent, and speak up about mental illness.
If you’re reading this and you are suffering from some sort of mental illness, be it depression or something else, please know that you’re not alone, you’re not weak, and you’re not a failure. Actually, to make it to where you are now means you’re quite strong. But please don’t make the mistake I did and keep silent, trying to fix things on your own. Find somebody you trust and get the help you need.