Friday, March 1, 2013

Of Antidepressants and Social Stigmas

I have a mental illness. Were I to say ‘I have high blood pressure’ or ‘I wear glasses’, you would have a vastly different reaction, even though all of these issues are essentially the same: something about my physiology needs aid in order to function properly.  We humans are made of matter. Variations appear in our form because our development is guided by evolution. Some variations can be beneficial, some can be hindrances. A person must be evaluated as a whole, not solely by variations from some socially constructed norm. All things considered, the need for glasses, blood pressure medication, or antidepressants do not make a person’s worth void. In fact, they may enhance a person’s worth, because they provide a special perspective on things that someone conforming more strictly to that socially constructed norm will not have access to.

In the movies, and in books, to ‘come out’ as a gay person in virtually any day in our society’s history has been to court disaster, but thankfully, the stigma is waning. This is due to the bravery of those who dared to come out, and the mass exposure therapy such action has provided our society. Society is naturally conservative, you see, and progress has to be made piece-by-piece.  There is so much stigma surrounding mental illness. Those of us with mental illness often feel it is something we need to conceal in order to ‘pass’. But 1 in 4 people in the U.S. have some kind of mental illness, and the services and support available to those with mental illness are completely inadequate. These services and support systems will not improve until the public possesses a better understanding of what it means to be mentally ill, and the public will not possess that understanding until those of us with mental illness let them know, first hand.  To many of the public, mental illness = school shootings and straightjackets. In reality, there are as many variations in the way mental illness manifests as there are people. More often than not, the effects are subtle.
They appeared subtle in my case. I could have easily continued to pass as ‘quirky’, but doing so would have required an amount of effort to simply maintain that a person should probably never have to put forth. Don’t get me wrong: the years of maintaining I did were highly informative and character building, but had I accepted earlier on what I needed to do and to accept to be as healthy as possible, and had I the courage to ignore the stigma attached to what I needed to do and to accept, I would gladly have done it.  The combination of medication and talk therapy have been wonderful for me; when my therapist informed me that ‘happiness is available to you’, it was like a revelation. I had internalized the notion that it was not, and that I would always be in some kind of pain. I romanticized struggle in order to make it more palatable. I still believe struggle is the only way to growth, but there is a point where struggling becomes needless suffering, and that is something that has to be avoided.

My own stigmas about what it means to be mentally ill kept me from pursuing treatment, or even allowing myself to accept what I knew deep inside to be true.  How many more people are out there trying to ‘go it alone’ with their mental illness because of their own internalized stigmas? I can’t tell you how much better I feel. You really don’t know how unhealthy you were until you become healthy. When I look back over the terrain of my past, I see a craggy, ominous country. It was definitely a huge journey. With medication, and talk therapy, I can look forward to more manageable country: there are still cracks and crevices and other dark spots on the horizon, but I am better equipped to deal with them.
As someone who has spent a lot of effort in the past few years discussing and organizing on the need for reforms in our mental health system, I felt consistency required that I be forthright about my own stake in this issue, and my own struggles with it.  If my ‘coming out’ makes it easier for another person to do so—and to help decrease the stigma associated with mental illness—then I am happy to do it.

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