I was approached not long ago to write a guest piece for this blog concerning my experiences with and observations on mental illness. For a long time I circled around the topic, knowing what I wanted to say and trying to find a way to introduce it cleverly. But all of my clever metaphorical lead-ins seemed to fall short of my main idea.
It’s not that I don’t have experience with the issue: I suffer from mental illness. I live with both epilepsy and severe anxiety, which means that I have to keep my anxiety under control both for my own sake and because the resulting stress could trigger a seizure. It’s not pleasant, and it’s taken years of medication and lifestyle tweaks to get me to a point where I can live my life without having to escape to a quiet room to recalibrate every hour or so. Not a convenient state of affairs when one of your main job functions is public speaking.
Honestly just typing the phrase “I suffer from mental illness” feels odd to me. Because “mental illness” as a term carries with it such a connotation, such a social stigma. There’s a feeling of danger, of instability; the sense that if you say those words, things will be taken away from you. For me, at least, the mere phrase carries a sort of Gothic loneliness to it. A sense of being trapped in close quarters with a disease you can’t escape, with a stranger who will hijack your brain, like the madwoman in Rochester’s attic.
Saying it aloud, typing it to all of you, tells me all I ever needed to know about why we are so afraid to say it ourselves or hear it from others. The minute I admitted it, I felt for a flicker of a moment as though I had acceded control of myself… strangely, even more acutely than when I became open about my epilepsy. “I have a mental illness.” Somehow, admitting that a chemical in my brain is off-balance seems more terrifying in a social context than admitting that my brain will occasionally shoot off random electrical misfires.
Why? Why is “I have a mental illness” scarier to me than “I have epilepsy”?
Easy. Obviously. Of the two, the outside world is far less likely to blame you for the results of epilepsy than the results of anxiety. Someone strobes a light at me and I collapse? It’s okay, you couldn’t help it. I’m in an intense social situation and start to panic? That’s clearly a personal shortcoming.
And therein lies the social issue: when it comes to mental illness, it’s largely perceived as either something emotional you should be able to switch off, which makes it your own fault; or something you can’t control, which makes you scary and unstable because you don’t rule your own brain. With the former, people like me don’t seek treatment because we’re trained to believe it’s something we can overcome with willpower and maturity even if it’s a genuine chemical imbalance. And with the latter… we don’t talk about it. Because we don’t want people to be afraid of us.
It’s a hard situation to cope with, because the way our minds work, we sort of feel as though we live inside our brains. Like we actually are our brain, sitting up in the Hover Pilder and controlling the rest of our body. (Gratuitous anime reference – comes with the job.) But even though our memories and processes are stored up there, we aren’t our brain. We have a brain, the same way we have eyes, hands, feet, lungs, a heart. And like our eyes and hands and feet and lungs and heart, our brain can occasionally not work “up to code.” Astigmatism or arthritis or asthma are medical conditions, not personal flaws. No more than anxiety or depression. They’re simply a part of us not quite functioning as it should. A thing that can be fixed with help from people who spend their lives learning how to fix these things.
That’s an extremely, supremely hard thing to tell ourselves. Because we feel our thoughts being encroached upon. We hear ourselves thinking things that aren’t us, saying things we’d really rather not be saying. Our inner world is being invaded in a way that more tangible illness can’t. And that behavior can, sadly, affect others. It wasn’t until a friend sat me down and told me I needed help – in a concerned and kind way – that I stopped being afraid of the upshot of having a mental illness and focused more on the upshot of not doing something about it.
We may, sadly, never fully shake the stigma attached to mental illness, if only because humans have a hard time coping with things they do not understand. And because mental illness are so deep within us that they trick us into believing they ARE us, both by how they manifest and by what they can lead us to do. But we can at least make a start.
Mental illness is not something the person chooses to do.
Mental illness is not a personality.
What it is is in its name: an illness. And not in a way that should be pitied or feared, but in a way that should be treated. And one step toward that treatment is encouraging people to seek it out. Letting them know that getting help for a mental illness is not relinquishing control, but rather claiming it.
In the time since I was diagnosed for anxiety and began treating it – a couple of months at best after years of thinking I was just a panicky, immature adult – my life has changed for the better. I don’t feel like a different person. I don’t feel changed or medicated or “fixed.” I feel like me in a way I haven’t felt in years.
Because that is mental illness’s greatest weapon: it exists in the part of us that we believe IS us, so over time it leads us to believe that it is an inherent part of our personality. Is it part of our identity? Perhaps. We have to embrace all of ourselves, even the things we didn’t ask for, to truly move forward. I am not my anxiety, even though I may have days where I feel like it is. It is something I have and that I must address, but it isn’t ME.
It’s a big ask. This involves not only people suffering from mental illness to reexamine their self-image, but also for those without it to change how they think of mentally ill people. But the stigma and the fear are a huge part of the problem. As long as it’s treated like a curse or a major malfunction, it will remain difficult to convince ourselves to seek help when we need it. Understanding it without fear, and understanding ourselves and others when faced with it, is the way forward to recovery.
Kara Dennison is a writer, editor, and illustrator, as well as the community manager for the American Doctor Who convention (Re)Generation Who. She tweets @rubycosmos and blogs at karadennison.com.