When I first went to therapy, I was fifteen.
My dad was driving. My dad doesn’t believe that brains can act this way. My dad wants me to stop it. He advises, as I step out of the car, to not tell anyone about this whole thing.
Because, he says, people will think you’re a freak.
When I struggled with an eating disorder, it was easier. People like to hear about your struggles when there’s a clean cut way to get better. You don’t eat enough? Eat! You eat “too much”? Eat less! Maybe that’s a harsh overgeneralization. But that’s how it felt–that it was easier when my mental illness manifested itself in a visible way to explain how strong it was, how powerless I felt. When I recovered from my eating disorder, any and all concern seemed to dissipate. But my mental illness was raging more than ever.
I used to be ashamed of the therapist visits, of the antidepressants that made me sick for an entire vacation, of the days I couldn’t be myself, of every time someone would ask me what was wrong and I couldn’t come up with anything. I was ashamed that I couldn’t keep up with everyone else, or at least that it felt like I couldn’t. I have always felt that everyone else had their road paved and it made sense, even their obstacles got to make sense. I wasn’t on a road, it seemed. I was in the wilderness.
My brain and I have been through a lot together. I have enough diagnoses to fill a doctor’s file, but I’ve mostly surrendered them to the general idea that my brain just works differently. My brain can make it hard to live. It can feel like a separate entity. I can be tied to the floor for weeks on end and barely make ends meet, only to be chased by a week where I accomplish everything I need to do and then some. Some weeks i’m on fire, unstoppable, and can’t imagine slowing down. Once, I had an entire month where my mood swings and crying jags were so severe that I showed up at my pharmacist’s office and asked, between sobs, if she was sure she gave me the right thing. Then, I ran before she could find out out of pure embarrassment.
I used to find it unbearably vulnerable to talk about my mental illness. Then, one month, after coming down with a strong cold/flu hybrid and telling everyone within a ten mile radius about it with no repercussions, I got frustrated. Why is it, when you can see the sick, everyone understands? Why is it so hard to grasp that we can be sick from the inside, too?
We collectively understand that our thoughts and emotions dictate how we’re perceived–our personalities in general. We can make that connection, but the connection between our thoughts and feelings and our mental illnesses are immediately looked down upon and shamed? Where did we drop the ball?
As someone who has, and probably, to some extent, will always live with mental illness, I make it a point to talk about it. I talk about my mental state with those i trust. I post about it whenever I can in a way that feels empowering, and I try to normalize it. Because it is normal. We have brains. They do things. We feel a certain way. These are human truths.
Truth be told, I still stigmatize it myself sometimes. The difference is that I’m not ashamed of the way I was wired. My mental illness has made me so kind. So compassionate. So vulnerable. So empathetic. And so creative. All in ways that I don’t believe I could have been without it. In that regard, I’m so grateful. I’m also grateful for all of the support; all of the people who listen to me and love me, all of the people I can affect by being honest about my brain. I’m so grateful for the professionals and the strangers and everyone in between who have helped me. I’m grateful for the connection to others that my mental illness has provided me.
Why would I be ashamed of brain chemicals that are out of my control? Why would i be angry at myself for feeling? Why would I hate myself for simply being a human the best I can on that day? Why would I be ashamed of something that taught me so much about myself?
You can’t shame the shame away. The trick to mental illness is to approach it with love and acceptance, whatever that means for you–to not shame it, or hate it. And believe me, I know what it’s like to hate it. Trust that it’s here to protect you, in some way, from the world, and trust that you have the voice and the tools to make it out. Trust that one day, it won’t be nearly as heavy, and it’ll give you so much.
I chose to not be ashamed of my mental illness because to choose otherwise was a form of self-hate. And I can’t hate that part of me anymore.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out Don’t Tell Me I Look Healthy–Tell Me I Look Happy