I was first diagnosed with a mental illness when I was fourteen. I had been depressed, anxious, and experiencing hallucinations for about two years, but I started reaching out for help when I started hurting myself. When going through the tumultuous journey through many a crisis, med changes, and mood swings, it’s hard to keep people from finding out that you’re going through hell and even harder to keep them from judging you. Before I had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital (and it seemed like everyone in my entire school found out), I wasn’t very popular, but I wasn’t a target for harassment either. As soon as my peers got wind that I was the least bit different however, it was open season.
I remember my first day back to school after having been in the hospital for three weeks. My close friends had known my whereabouts while I was away and I had trusted them not to blab that information to the entire middle school, but of course being adolescents who were bent on popularity, they did. I walked the halls to my classes that day, and everyone stared. Some people quietly giggled, muttered words like “crazy” and “insane” while others just plain laughed in my face. Just weeks before I had been one of them, but in an instant, I became an outsider.
Eventually my friends started slipping away too and I pushed away the ones that remained because they just didn’t get it. Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness and people’s unwillingness to learn how it can affect you, I decided that I was a monster who was undeserving of friendship and support. If people hated me because I was something they didn’t understand, well then you’d better believe I was going to hate them too! That was my mindset for at least three years.
My parents were and remain my biggest supports, despite my father’s untimely death last April. When I wanted to quit school because I no longer wanted to be around people who couldn’t even begin to comprehend what I was going through, they pushed me to attend an alternative school instead of the overbearing charter school. When I wanted to end everything because I was convinced that my life would never get better, they sat with me for countless hours, lending me their ears and shoulders. And when I cursed myself for being mentally ill, they uttered the same mantra over and over, “You are not your mental illness.”
Out of everything– all of the medication, hospital stays, forced respite care– this stuck with me the most and I started exemplifying what my parents had etched into my skull. I was not my mental illness, but merely lived with it. This life changing realization made me view stigma in an entirely new light.
Stigma will always suck. Being judged for something that’s completely out of your control, whether it be mental illness, physical disability, gender, nationality, or anything else, will always negatively affect those who are being stigmatized. It is exactly that ignorance that makes it hard to be different and accept yourself for it. Who wants to be different when it’s not acceptable, right? What I realized after my parents continuously told me that I was not my mental illness was that I was a person. A person with a name. And feelings. And a family. And pets. And hobbies. From that point on, my resiliency has only gotten stronger, and even though stigma is a part of my life, it does not embody me.