I showered today. Trust me that this is sincerely an achievement worthy of mention here. I took a shower, and it’s a really big deal. I know that most of you probably won’t understand this at all, but I think it’s about damn time that society as a whole start trying a slight bit harder to comprehend this struggle. These are the confessions most individuals who suffer from mental illness don’t want to make, and the very same announcements the rest of the world would almost gladly not hear. You may not want to know that my showering today was truly a triumph as I spent the last three days mostly confined to bed, wearing the same dirty underwear, matted hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, teeth not brushed and face not washed. You may not want to know that my uncleanliness was of no concern because I had no will to live. I didn’t feel like a human being of worth and value; I was just a lump of tissue and meaningless mass.
You may not want to know that nothing could bring me joy; even the smiling, fresh young faces of my two loving toddler children could not break through this thick depression – this impenetrable suffering. You may not want to know that while it was a sunny 85 degrees outside, I just hid under my covers and tried to shrink away from the world and all its accompanying labors. I would rather be asleep than awake for only in sleep could I truly hinder my self-hatred, anxiety, worthlessness, anger, and fear.
These are the things I often don’t want to say, and don’t want others to see. I don’t allow many people to observe my suffering as I fear they will falsely judge and label me – crazy and incompetent. My illness is not all I am; I am so much more than this bipolar disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Such a large portion of society fails to perceive my illness as akin to any other medical condition and simply cannot comprehend that I too am capable of being intelligent, creative, dedicated, and valuable. Thus, I am taught to be silent and to keep secrets because the whole of society will all too readily diminish an individual’s worth if mental illness is discovered. My mental illness is a massive black smudge on an otherwise brilliant resume. This is not as it should be, but such is the reality.
Although doctors did recently discover a pre-malignant tubular adenoma and thus remove it from my person, (fingers crossed) I have never suffered from cancer. However, I would never say to the individual who is suffering from this illness, “Why don’t you get out of bed? You can’t really be that exhausted. You know, I don’t have cancer and I’ve never felt that way, so I just don’t get it.” I certainly hope you all agree that such statements are demonstrative of immense cruelty and ignorance. If agreed, perhaps then you can tell me why it’s acceptable to tell me, “I’ve never been depressed. I guess I just don’t get it.” You don’t have to experience my illness to show some kindness and understanding. Why does it seem acceptable to propose that I “just snap out of it?” Just like the cancer patient can’t miraculously cure his or her illness of sheer will alone, neither can I just brighten my mood by changing my attitude or being more appreciative of my blessings. Mental illness is not a choice; it is a legitimate medical disorder and must be recognized as such.
There are things we don’t speak about because too many individuals continue to believe that depression and anxiety are chosen and desired. I, myself, cannot think of one single reason why I would choose to spend three straight days in bed when I could be out gardening, playing with my children, enjoying the sunshine, doing these things I love to do when I am well. But I am not well. Episodes of great depression can overtake me so suddenly, just like an unexpected fever or infection that keeps the mentally well person somewhat restricted for a period of time. This individual has the knowledge, though, that the fever will pass and they will be wholly well again. During my severe bouts of depression, I am filled with an all-encompassing distress and anxiety that I will never again recover and I will never again be valued or loved by another. I don’t normally speak about such apprehension though, for if others knew of such fears, would they then accept my alarm as reality and thus be even more dismissive of my abilities? (I will get better, and I am capable of abundant achievements.)
Mental illness alone gives me much reason for concern. I worry that a bout of illness will occur at a most opportune time. I worry that my illness will be obstructive and prevent me from achieving my goals, hopes, and dreams. I worry that my illness will affect my children and they might hate a mother who brought them into this world while fully aware she might not always be physically and psychologically available to them. I worry that I will lose loved ones who have grown too exhausted and frustrated with this miserable beast of an illness. I worry that my past manic behaviors might return and I could destroy my marriage or my finances. I have all these worries, and so many more. I don’t need the additional worries of being misunderstood and misjudged due to the stigma of mental illness. This is not as it should be, but such is the reality.
I want to believe that perhaps – just perhaps – we can alter the reality if we break the silence and agree to speak out, to not be shamed, to not be victimized by stigma. Yet, I fear that I can scream as loud as I want, that I can try every single outlet to educate others properly about mental illness, and it all won’t make a damn bit of difference until others are also willing to listen and identify with these struggles. You may not want to hear about this hopeless, heavy depression, but you need to. I’m here saying the things nobody wants to say, so now it’s your turn to listen. Please listen; it’s time to start trying. When we rid the world of this dreadful, damaging stigma, this too will most certainly be an achievement truly worthy of mention.