When I first decided to share my diagnosis of depression and acute anxiety, my motives were somewhat fueled by self interest. I knew nothing about either condition aside from preconceptions I had gleaned from experiencing it through tangential relationships. Generally people don’t deep dive into a topic that doesn’t affect them personally, or affect someone they love.
Long before I was diagnosed, I can recall seeing a NAMI commercial with Glenn Close and her sister, that was attempting to bring awareness. Embarrassing to admit now, but my takeaway from the ad was, “Wow, I didn’t know that about Glenn.” My brain had merely reduced the message to a pop culture factoid to add to the already tome-worthy list of random trivia points I had squirreled away in my mind.
Now that the path was mine, I realized how utterly and completely I had missed the point of the advertisement. Glenn had been trying to put a face to mental health issues. She allowed us into her private life so we could see her sister’s humanity paired with the face of a woman who was already known to many of us. The message that had been shapeless and without form to the “me” without mental health issues was now vividly apparent to the woman I was now who was experiencing them.
The selfish motives behind my sharing were rooted in wanting to reach a level of acceptance in what I then perceived as my brokenness, and perhaps connect with others who shared my condition that could be guideposts on my new journey. The selfishness fell away rather quickly as I began to receive messages from sufferers who appreciated my openness, because for varying reasons they were on islands of silence and suffering.
My mission then was clear. I would be the voice for those who weren’t comfortable speaking. The face to remove the stigma. The vanity of that repulses me now, but at the time it was the empowerment and validation I needed to carry me through the early days.
It also allowed me to reach a level of authenticity that I craved in all of my relationships, be they online or in person. It became easy and normal for me to openly discuss my struggles, my triumphs, my spirals, and my recoveries. The small community I have built has been immensely supportive and loving. So much so that from the outside one might think that this would be the moment to expect to read, ” And she lived happily ever after. The End.” But real life isn’t a fairy tale and mental health issues don’t have a neat little bow wrapped around them.
While my own community has been supportive of me, the individual with the face they knew, I was shocked and disturbed to see how the faceless were still being regarded. Off-handed comments directed at others stating things like, “You dodged a bullet with that one. She’s clearly mentally ill,” made me realize that attaching my face to depression and anxiety benefited no one but me. I was granted a grace that others still are not.
Was I that bullet to those who didn’t know my face? Some unexploded ordinance that people were waiting to be remotely triggered into an emotional explosion? In truth, what others think of me no longer matters. I had the benefit of being diagnosed later in life with a lifetime of not only being capable, but also with a fair amount of achievements to bolster my self worth.
But what would the knowledge of those whispered mumblings do to those more fragile souls who still needed validation? Would it be the last shove they needed to reach despair? Would months of tentative steps toward mental health result in a tumble to the bottom of the staircase? Would they get up? Could they get up?
In this “there but for the Grace of God go I,” revelation, I knew that the world was much further from acceptance of mental health issues than I had given it credit for. The dilemma then becomes, how do you put a visage on a faceless stigma when not everyone’s lives are personally touched by mental health issues?
The best answer I can come up with right now is to pretend. Whenever you choose to speak in a pejorative manner about an illness, a handicap, even a quirk…put a face of someone you love on the receiving end. Not just anyone you care about, but someone whose happiness is your happiness, whose pain is your pain. Then picture that person’s expression going from the light and loving way you revel in seeing transform into shock and then a painful wince, followed by tears of despair. Maybe then you will comprehend the power of your words, and understand their impact.
Be well and be kind. -Jen