I’ve been quiet on here for the past week, and while it’s partly because I’ve been in a bit of a slump -- missed a bit of work, fought off a lot of headaches, took a lot of naps -- it’s also because I’ve been thinking about what to write next.
You know what my depression is like on a bad day. You know how it has affected my marriage. You know how my diagnosis came about, what my major symptoms are, how I feel about medication. Prior to beginning this blog, I pretty much knew all of those things myself.
What I didn’t know, and what you therefore can’t yet know, is how writing posts for this blog has brought me to feel about owning the labels of depression, anxiety, and most of all, mental illness. Whether we want them to be hard-and-fast labels or not, that’s what they are. Being the person of words and language that I am (once an English major, always an English major), I’m generally a fan of labels. I like things to be defined, to be clearly delineated, so that everyone can be on the same page about whatever they’re talking about. It makes for more efficient, productive conversation, and to me that’s always a good thing. Even and especially regarding mental health.
But how would I feel once I defined myself as mentally ill?
It’s one thing to admit to “having depression.” I’ve been owning that one for awhile now amongst friends and family, and it doesn’t bother me. While I never know how someone might react when they hear this for the first time, I generally don’t think much more of making this admission than I do about telling someone that I have high blood pressure, or that I wear glasses for near-sightedness. But to own up to that depression as a true mental illness -- how does that feel? I’m still not sure.
At times, in previous entries, I have referred to my depression as an illness, and I know intellectually that’s true. But how I feel about that personally -- that’s a bit of a different story. Sometimes I feel unworthy of the label: am I truly mentally ill? Isn’t that term reserved for people in a psychiatric hospital, or with more severe diagnoses, with something worse than “just” depression? I don’t self-harm; I’m not suicidal; I can work most days, and see my friends and family, and generally live my life (with some exceptions, naturally). Does my condition really warrant the label of “mental illness”?
But yes, I have decided, it does. People who are not mentally ill do not spend days on end in bed, avoiding sunlight, feeling too tired and too worthless to shower or brush their teeth. People who are not mentally ill do not miss the wedding of two close friends because they feel too low to leave the house or too anxious to fly. People who are not mentally ill do not go out to their favorite restaurant, eat their favorite meal with their favorite cocktail, and shrug, indifferent, because they don’t even feel a glimmer of enjoyment.
Society has taught us a lot about which people we label as mentally ill. People who are mentally ill (or mentally “unstable,” that’s a good one, too) are crazy; they hear voices, act irrationally, do things that make no sense to the people around them. The label is a catchall to explain behavior we don’t understand, to reason away instances of inexplicable violence in our communities, to dismiss people on the margins of society. It’s a way to push people who are different into a category, to force them into a box we can stick a neatly printed label on and put on a shelf, gathering dust and staying safely contained away from everybody else we love and want to keep safe.
This is not okay. This is stigma, and it’s a reason I am writing openly and honestly about my own mental illness here and now.
Who are the mentally ill, really? We are not people sitting in corners, crying or holding our heads in our hands or staring into a dark room. We are not aggressive or violent; we are actually more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. We are not a punchline, a joke to make your friends or coworkers chuckle.
Sure, sometimes we sit in a dark room and cry. Sometimes some of us can act aggressively when we are hurting or scared. Some of us hear voices. Many of us can handle a joke at our own expense. But essentially, we are just people. We are writers, thinkers, students, graduates, professionals. We are the person sitting in the park, playing with our dogs or reading a book. The person serving you coffee with a smile at your local cafe. We are probably even your doctor, your accountant, your child’s teacher. We are your parents, your children, your siblings, your friends -- and we are sick. That’s all. We are people, who happen to be sick in a way you can’t always see or expect to understand.
Yes, I am mentally ill. No, I don’t need you to sympathize or try to fix it. What I need you to do is keep me out of the labeled box on your dusty top shelf, and keep me in your life the way you hold the rest of your loved ones dear.
I’m mentally ill, and I can own that. Can you?