Stigma

By Annie Doherty

I’ve sought acceptance my entire life - acceptance from my family, my friends, coworkers, strangers, husband, myself. I’ve sought acceptance to such a degree that I allowed myself to become whatever anyone wanted. I shut down every true part of my being to morph into what was desired by those around me. I’ve gone from praying that I would be bipolar to fit in with all the men in my family, to turning off every true feeling and emotion because it was what someone wanted. I never liked who I was in those times, but if it got some semblance of love and acceptance, I would allow it. 

    I no longer turn off all my emotions. I no longer wish to be bipolar. I am, however, someone who struggles with depression. When I finally admitted my struggle, to even just myself, it broke open a dam that I had hardly realized I built. I lived within the walls of my own interior castle; I locked everyone out, even myself.

I often wondered why I could accept the illnesses of others but refused to allow myself to accept my own. The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s because I had been met with so many combative or uninformed opinions regarding mental illness. I fought hard for people to understand bipolar disorder was not something you could just turn on or off. People were uncomfortable hearing about someone being so depressed that they wished to stop waking up. I knew I was depressed, but I didn’t want people to tell me just to be happy or pray more and everything would get better. So, I held everything inside for as long as I could.

I avoided eye contact. I shifted my stance, bent my legs and rubbed my arms. I stumbled over my words. I tried to make it seem like it wasn’t a big deal. I tried to shrug off any level of seriousness. I laughed awkwardly. I felt shame in telling someone that I struggled with depression. I felt shame admitting there lived within me a dark monster that consumed any hope of joy and shattered any desire to face the next day. I felt shame confessing the very truth of my sad soul that I had tried for years to cover up, tried to ignore, tried to bury somewhere so deep within myself that I couldn’t remember where it lived. I didn’t like how they would look at me once they knew I wasn’t normal.

In the summer of 2013, I made a suicide attempt and spent nine days in the psychiatric ward. I was surrounded by people suffering from similar mental states, some better, some far worse. It was the safest I have ever felt in disclosing the truth about how I was doing. I have never been so brutally honest with myself, or others, then when I was in the hospital. There was no judgment, only the truth. There was no stigma. The moment I left the hospital, I felt myself start to hide the truth again. Despite having exposed the depression I had been dealing with for years, I still did not feel comfortable discussing my illness. The first few months out of the hospital, I wanted to go back. I didn’t enjoy the looks I was getting from friends who didn’t understand what was going on with me. 

When I finally was able to be comfortable in my own skin and realize that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, I didn’t feel the desire to go back to the hospital. I no longer put a stigma on myself. I talked, and still talk, openly about things I’ve gone through. I’ve seen how honesty can both help people open up and how it can cause them to shy away from me. 
Now that everything has been exposed to my family and friends, I can’t avoid my darkness anymore. I’ve accepted it. I ache for people around me to understand the complexities of mental illness so that those who have them don’t feel like they need to hide it or feel ashamed. Mental illnesses are real and should not be met with whispers and side looks and shame. Depression may always be a part of my life, but it does not define who I am. These are things that need to be spoken about, written about so that this stigma that has been attached to mental illness can be put away.