Ditch the stigma and get better!
Editor's note: Thank you, Anita for your resiliency and for bravely sharing your struggles with mental illness.
My name is Anita and I am 50 years old. I want to share how that stigma of mental illness affected and almost killed me.
I was first diagnosed with depression when I was 13 years old when I attempted suicide. My parents FORBADE me from ever saying to anyone that I was told this. They didn’t believe in “mental health disorders” and they refused to have me take medication or do therapy. It was an embarrassment for THEM to be told their child had a “mental disorder”. Mentally ill people were “crazy” people and we didn’t have “that” in our family. According to them, I was just lazy, ungrateful and “guilty” of something. This made me believe that I was a bad and ungrateful person that was lazy and didn’t want to do anything. I felt shame in not feeling “happy”. Needless to say, I kept getting worse, and the cycle of guilt and shame made me isolate myself from others even more. It never occurred to me that I was sick and needed a doctor.
At 19, I had a second suicide attempt and was hospitalized for two weeks in a mental health ward. It was there that I was diagnosed with Major Depression, Borderline Personality Disorder with Anxiety/Avoidance and PTSD. I was still in denial because I believed my parents, yet I knew I was not okay. I had severe triggers that would put me into an instant rage, I felt like I didn’t want to exist, I didn’t laugh or smile, any chance I got I wanted to hide in bed, I didn’t want anyone to get close to me emotionally, and I couldn’t emotionally connect with anyone. Every day was a struggle to get through, and every day I contemplated how to end my life. I was ashamed that there was something wrong with me for feeling this way. I thought I was a bad person for not appreciating what I had in life.
I was very lucky to have had a psychiatrist that was wonderful, patient and didn’t give up on me. She worked with me every day to get me to understand that what I had was a REAL illness that was treatable. I struggled with the idea that I had a “mental illness”. I felt shame in admitting it. I kept hearing my parents’ voices that it wasn’t real and their horror at being told their child had a “mental illness”. But finally, I agreed to medication and therapy.
That was a life-changer for me. I finally began to “feel” something other than being down/sad/numb and not wanting to deal with any part of life. I can recall the first day I woke up and felt “happy” and didn’t dread the idea that I was still alive. I slowly began to feel better and day by day, I kept getting better.
It took me a long time to tell anyone that I had a mental illness. The shame that my parents had passed to me. But the better I began to feel was enough evidence that the doctors were right. I continued with therapy dealing with the shame and guilt I felt, learned how to cope day-to-day and strategies for dealing with triggers or anxiety. I found a medication combo that helped me.
Learning about my mental health disorders was a must to understand how to manage them.
I recognize when I begin to “slide” and what to do. I know when I start to slide that I need to visit a friend or go to group therapy and not isolate myself. I know when I need to see the doctor to have my medication adjusted. I know when to pull back from a situation when I feel anxious. I have learned how to let people close to me and how to love them in return.
I managed to get myself through nursing school and was a nurse for 21 years. I reached a point in 2005 where I could no longer do that sort of work. I have developed other health issues and needed a sedentary job. So, I changed to another career. I raised three children and have a support network of people to help me when I need it. I have been able to deal with life’s stress and unpredictability. I have been able to accomplish all of this because I learned about my illnesses, did therapy (a lot of it), and stayed on medication. I would not have this life if I didn’t have the doctor that patiently worked with me to get me to understand this was real. I would have stayed sick and probably not be here today.
Every day is different for me. Living with mental illnesses is a daily struggle. Some days are good, some are bad, and some days are really bad. The bad days I take in stride. I remind myself it won’t always be like this. I celebrate the good days and am grateful for them. I take care of me and that helps me to be better. I am a better ME because I understand what I have and how to deal with it. I am no longer afraid or ashamed to ask for help.
I have a semicolon (the Semicolon Project) on my left wrist and so do a few of my family members to show their support for me. I can talk to anyone about my mental health issues, I have encouraged a lot of people that struggled with the “stigma” of admitting they have a mental disorder to get help, and I help educate people that really do not understand mental health disorders. I can’t tell you how many times someone of an “older” generation has said to me, “think happy thoughts and you will be better” or “learn to appreciate what you have in life and that will make you happy”. Bless their hearts they are trying to be helpful, but it isn’t. It is an illness just like any other illness in another part of the body, only it is our brain that is malfunctioning. Some days I get frustrated that someone with diabetes, liver problems or other chronic body illness gets sympathy and understanding from people, yet we don’t.
It is wonderful to feel happy, connected and in control. I have three wonderful children that are happy and healthy. They know what to watch for because it can be hereditary. I have openly talked about my illnesses so that they know it is okay if they start to feel like they are getting depressed or anxious and need help.
Yes, we have come a long way from where we once were when it comes to talking about and understanding mental illness, but we still have work to do. I believe that the more people share their stories, the more it helps others not feel alone and it helps to show that people who have mental health issues are just like everyone else, we are not “crazy”. We have an illness that affects our emotions and thought processes. Our illnesses are so manageable today. We can better see that there is no shame in getting help. In fact, getting help is the most courageous thing you can do.
I believe that one day people will hear “mental illness” and have sympathy and understanding of what we go through every day of our lives.
Why is it important for you to share your story and experiences with mental health and illness?
So people understand better what it is. I want people struggling to know it is ok to ask for help.
Edmonton, AB, Canada
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