By Tom Wavre
Too often stigma tells us to feel ashamed of having a mental illness. When going through a period of depression, or anxiety stigma would have you believe that you must be weak. A failure. Unable to handle what is thrown at you whilst others can. There is stigma attached to taking medication, seeing a therapist, being ‘too’ open about your feelings or from just suffering from it in the first place.
Living with a mental illness is hard enough as it is without all the extra baggage that stigma would heap on top of you. It is vital to be able to realise when stigma is lying to you – be that from other people or your own mind. If you believe the lies you may start to feel ashamed of yourself for a multitude of reasons. With all you’re battling, that is the last thing you need.
7 reasons I refuse to let stigma make me feel ashamed
1. We have immense inner strength
Perhaps the biggest lie that stigma told me was that I was weak for having depression. But I have learnt over the last few years that I am strong. And the reasons that I am strong are the same reasons I can use to know that you too are strong. Getting up in the morning, showering, going to work, eating healthily, doing my job etc – all of these are near impossible tasks when suffering from depression. Some days I manage them all, some days I don’t. But even when my to-do list doesn’t really get touched I know that just making it through the day has taken more strength and resilience than I ever need when I am ‘mentally healthy’.
2. We are persistent
Externally it may seem like I am falling short of the standards I want to meet, but consider this picture. Two men climbing up a mountain path. The first seems physically fit, has all the best equipment and isn’t carrying much. The second is weighed down by a huge backpack filled with bricks, has cramp in both legs, limited supplies. Both are climbing the mountain, and of course the first man is going much faster. The second man is falling further behind but is clawing his way along, sometimes face down in the mud, using every ounce of energy to move the next half metre. No matter what, the second man keeps going, while the first man bounds up the mountain.
If you don’t see what the two are going through and only see their progress, yes the first man seems far stronger and fitter. But when you know the effort, blood, sweat and tears being put into every last step, you soon know where the true strength lies.
3. We do what it takes
For reasons beyond me, a large number of people will try to make you feel ashamed for taking medication. They claim that fresh air and exercise is a better antidepressant than antidepressants. For some people this will be true, for me it is not. I love the peace and quiet of a large expanse of water, nature all around, the sound of the waves being an optional, beautiful extra. When mentally healthy and feeling low then yes this helps me immensely. But when in the depths of a depressive episode the countryside does nothing for me. It’s true that I would prefer if I could manage my depression without pills but I am fighting every day for my mental health. I will use any, and all weapons I can get my hands on in that battle and I will never feel ashamed for doing so.
4. We ask for help
There was a time that asking for help seemed like a sign of weakness to me. Wrong. So very wrong. Asking for help shows emotional maturity and it shows wisdom. It opens us up to vulnerability which can be the source of so much joy, but we open ourselves up to it despite the risks of being hurt further. There are no prizes in life for going it alone. There is help out there, I ask you to have the strength and wisdom to use it.
5. We need our rest
We fight battles every day. Some big, some small. Even when it feels like you are constantly losing, please know that you are winning ones you aren’t even recognising. You’re still here, you’re still fighting. You’ve still made it through another day even though the world seems to be conspiring against you to make it less and less likely that you’ll make it through another. But you will. Sometimes you may need a break, and it’s ok to take a break, it’s ok to rest from the fight. Just be sure to get back up again and keep going.
Let’s go back to our two men climbing the mountain. Would you begrudge the one fighting every inch of the way a break or two so he can get his breath back, let his cramp ease up, get some semblance of energy back? Of course not, you would probably question him if he didn’t. We need our rest too. It isn’t failure, it isn’t weakness, it is natural and necessary.
6. We help others
Everytime we speak up it’s a beacon of hope to someone who is fighting their fight but yet speak up. It is a light at the end of the tunnel that looks less like a train and more like sunlight. If you have yet to speak up, that doesn’t mean you aren’t strong. It doesn’t mean you are less than those who have, it just means you are at a different stage of a different journey. We are all unique and so are our struggles.
If you’re like me, you have a constant need to compare yourself and your situation to others. No good comes of this. The comparisons are never fair and when you’re in a depressive state, you are the WORST possible person to make that comparison! It took me a very long time to be able to admit even to myself what was going on. So if you must compare, compare to me a couple of years ago. The me who believed all the lies and refused to tell a soul. The me who assumed all the worst things were true. I’m not that person anymore and one day neither will you be. No, I’m not perfect now, but nobody is and nobody ever will be.
Do open up, little by little, where you feel safest. When you do and someone else hears your story, it will help them, just as it helps you to read about others in a similar position to you. And my hope is that soon you will realise that the lies you believe today, are just that. Lies.
7. We know what it is REALLY like
Those who use stigma against those with a mental illness don’t actually know what it is like. They may think they do, everyone has felt low, everyone has felt deep sadness or times of anxiety. And when you do feel like that but are mentally healthy, advice like exercise, or think happy thoughts etc can actually work. But we know the reality of mental illness, the emptiness, the crushing truth of it. Often those who give such misguided advice are very well meaning, they simply don’t know the reality of it. So, I choose to not let a view that comes from ignorance bring me down. I know that their opinion is based off only half facts. It is frustrating and depending on who it is and their impact on my life it is more than frustrating. However, I won’t let that opinion make me feel ashamed.
I imagine an economist would probably laugh at some of my half-baked views on how the economy should be run, but they are experts and I am not. My view is unlikely to influence theirs or make them question themselves. So why should someone who doesn’t know the truth of mental illness make me question myself?
Do Not Feel Ashamed
As far as I can see, stigma is little more than a collection of lies and mistruths. Quite simply you have enough to battle and to contend with already. Don’t let stigma add to it by making you feel ashamed. You are infinitely more than stigma would have you believe you are.