The whirring of my professor’s voice swirls around me like a dull warm breeze on a sticky summer day. This is my third time taking this class and I sit in the front row of the lecture hall unable to hear a thing. My hands sweat and my heart knocks against my hollow chest: You. Are. Not. Enough. You. Are. Not. Enough. I wonder if anybody else can hear it and I look around inconspicuously at the attentive students around me. I wonder if anyone can tell how wrong I am. My eyes well with tears and I begin to crumble inside myself. Nobody notices and while I like it that way, I feel alone.
Beneath my blankets is my retreat; I’m just tired, I tell them. I lock my dorm room door and wonder what people would say if they knew the truth. If they knew what lay beneath these layers. I hear students laughing outside my window and chatting in the hallway while I’m alone on the underside of my sheets and comforter, my thoughts running races, chasing nothing at all. I’m on a deserted island being eroded by the crashing waves of depression.
I hide away and don’t say a thing to anybody for a year. I can’t stand the thought of people knowing that I’m wrong, knowing that I’m not normal. I’ve heard the labels: crazy, nutcase, psycho, mental, insane. Maybe I belong in a straightjacket in the looney bin. I must be attention-seeking. I must be overdramatic. I must be faking it. I must be alien. An outcast. That’s what society says, isn’t it?
Stigma. A mark of disgrace and shame. For having an illness. If I were to come out of hiding, to reveal myself as someone who needs help, would I then wear a scarlet letter? Would I be stamped as “crazy”? Would people look at me differently?
I’m afraid to get help and I see somebody I know as I’m walking to my campus counseling center for the first time, so I avoid them. I can’t tell them where I’m going. I look around to make sure nobody is watching me as I walk up the stairs to the counseling center door. In the bathroom, I look in the mirror and wonder who the pale face staring back at me is. I am a crazy person. This can’t be real. Nobody can know. I am ashamed.
In the media, on the streets of inner cities, in high school hallways, in gym locker rooms, in bedrooms lie stigma against mental illnesses. Its ubiquitous presence pastes stereotypes and labels onto people who struggle, or worse, sweeps them under the rug completely. Stigma begets lies and misinformation to the public which leads to discomfort and fear when the topic of mental illness arises. An even worse fear is the fear that stares those with mental illness in the face. People become afraid to speak up, afraid to reach out, afraid to seek help.
“I don’t know, maybe I’m depressed or something,” I type to my close friend on instant messenger. She doesn’t cast me off. She doesn’t view me differently. She doesn’t push me away. She pulls me closer. She inspires me to continue to speak up.
I am a lucky one. Too many people struggling with mental illness remain silent because when their words finally tiptoe out, they aren’t met with love. They are met with hate, with shame, with stigma’s ugly face. They hide in the dark like I did for what felt like a lifetime. Their negative self-esteem is validated through others’ ignorance. They stay hidden beneath their blankets. Their tears are visible to only themselves. If you are one of those people, please hear me: You are enough. You are worth it. You matter.
Five years later, one of my patients cries in her hospital room. She tells me she doesn’t want to take psychiatric medication. She doesn’t want to be in the hospital. Having a mental illness makes her feel like an alien. I tell her we are all humans. I show her I care. I assure her that some people make her feel small because they don’t understand. I tell her there is nothing wrong with her. I hope she will believe it, and I hope she will pass it on.
As people who struggle with mental illness, sometimes it feels like we live on a different planet entirely. Sometimes we feel like we speak a foreign language. Sometimes we feel we are worlds away from what society considers “normal”. However, as people who struggle with mental illness, we are not alien.