There are 43.3 million adults living with mental illness in the United States (NIMH 2015). I’m one of them. For an illness that can make you feel like Will Smith from I Am Legend, it is nice to be reminded that you’re in good company. Especially when there are limited examples of people like you thriving in “real life.”
I have to admit that there are two things that I listen for when I watch the news: the first is that the violent incident being reported doesn’t involve a person living with mental illness; the second is that the death being reported isn’t the result of suicide. When you’re a person living with a mental health issue, most of the time no news is good news. It’s frustrating that most peoples’ perception of people living with mental illness is still Split or Bates Motel instead of Silver Linings Playbook (seriously, check it out).
It is true, a significant number of the homeless and prison inmates have mental illness, sometimes severe. And this should be of great concern to everyone. These people need treatment, not imprisonment. However, the majority of us are working our way through life, managing as best we can, kind of like everyone else. The difference is that Buzzfeed doesn’t really make listicles for lifehacks when living with mental illness. And no one else is either. And I think that is why I have recently started talking more openly about my experiences.
True story: I started talking Lexapro, an anti-depressant, at the start of my junior year of college. I had never really known anyone taking this kind of medication and had no idea what to expect. Going onto psychiatric medication isn’t one of the easiest decisions to make. I was afraid that I would no longer be myself, that I could become some kind of zombie. It was also difficult because I grew up in a part of North Carolina was seen as the “easy way out.” Psychiatric drugs are seen as taking a pill to fix yourself rather than “dealing with your problems.”
I found several internet forums with people posting about their experiences, and while it was helpful, it wasn’t as comforting as sitting down with a friend and talking intimately. And then a friend that had graduated recently messaged me over Facebook to ask me how I was doing. This friend had spoken with me before about my experiences with anxiety and depression. I told her that I had just started on the medication. She said, “Oh yeah, I was on that once. It’s not so bad.”
It is impossible to describe the relief that I felt as my friend shared her experiences with me. I suddenly felt a lot less alone. My symptoms, my fears, and my hopes for improvement were no longer a burden that I had to carry; they were a part of the fabric of experience of everyone that lives with mental illness. I had nothing to be ashamed of.
Her openness with me also had another effect: it gave me permission to continue seeking health care and to feel okay about myself and the choice that I had made about my health. As odd as it seems, my friend’s honesty was an affirmation of me and my experience and gave me the confidence to continue moving forward in my help seeking.
This experience has been affirmed numerous times since this conversation. A fellow dancer relieved to finally meet someone else that lived with anxiety when I candidly mentioned taking an anti-depressant during a forum. An audience member that saw one of my works about living with mental illness that saw hope in his recent diagnosis. People who shared with me the stories of loved ones lost to suicide after seeing a work that I made about losing one of my own friends to suicide. I believe that there is immense healing power in empathy and honesty. So I try to talk openly and honestly about my experiences.
I also share my experiences to make space. Many people living with mental illness are afraid to talk about their experiences because of the stigma that is still attached our conditions. (If you don’t believe me, check your language. When is the last time you called someone “OCD” as a joke?) The problem is that our silence means that other people are telling our stories. And their narratives are often hurtful. (Have you noticed that one of the only times we discuss mental health is during a gun control debate after another mass shooting?)
In spite of my mental illness, I am a person of immense privilege. As a white, middle class, college-educated person, I have access to insurance and health care that many do not. I am also granted a certain amount of “tolerance” from others for my quirks. This tolerance also gives me space to talk about how I live with mental illness in ways that other people find difficult. I want to use my privilege to make space for others – people from lower socio-economic classes, people of color, members of the LGBTQIA community – to tell their stories so that they can be seen, heard, supported, and accepted.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing information about mental illness: who it affects, how it affects those who live with it, how it is treated, how it is stigmatized, how you can help.
If you are a person living with a mental illness: share you stories. We will listen. You are loved. Please feel free to post in the comments, on Facebook or Instagram.
To those who do not live with mental illness: listen. You have no idea how much your support matters. Please feel free to post your support.
I look forward to hearing from you and sharing with you. Love and respect, always.