Sarah Fader did not want her children to grow up thinking they had to be ashamed of their feelings, as she had been her entire life. So she decided to open up about the panic disorder from which she had suffered since she was a teenager.
In early 2014, she penned “Fighting Against the Stigma of Mental Illness” for the Huffington Post to describe her struggles. She described how others had belittled her for her illness, telling her that she was merely being “dramatic” or disparaging her use of antidepressants. Hundreds of people from all over the world sent her messages relating their own experiences with shame.
Then Fader met Allie Burke, who lives with schizophrenia, through a mental-health advocacy community on Facebook. The two women teamed up to launch Stigma Fighters, a blog and nonprofit dedicated to giving other people a platform to share their stories.
Since its launch in March 2014, hundreds of people have written pieces for the blog. Fader originally let contributors write anonymously or under first names, but then Marshall reached out to Fader through social media to share her own epiphany about not hiding behind a fake name.
So now Fader requires almost everyone contributing to the blog to write under their full names. Those who overcome their fears of being judged and do so start to view themselves as survivors.
I wasn’t really scared of myself—it was just a normal thing that I had. My uncle had the same illness and my dad walked him through along the way, trying to get him to a place where he was able to function. My dad had a lot of experience dealing with people with schizophrenia, so I was really able to turn to him. I was lucky in that regard, but I experienced stigma from other people as soon as they kind of figured it out.
“For example, I was once tagged in a Facebook post about psychiatric medication, and someone commented, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re schizophrenic? Why don’t you just kill yourself?’
This is what I would tell other women in my situation: It doesn’t define you. The illness is just a thing that makes your brain not work the same as everyone else’s. I think if a lot of women keep that in mind, that the things that are more important are that you’re a great mother and you’re a hard worker at work—whatever you’re passionate about, that’s what you need to focus on. These people who stigmatize you, they are stigmatizing the illness, not you.
These people who stigmatize you, they are stigmatizing the illness, not you.
My gender expression changes. I’m non-binary genderqueer/genderfluid.
‘I use the two terms interchangeably because, while 99 per cent of the time I don’t feel like a girl or boy, some days I do feel a little more feminine or a little more masculine. And it shows in the way I dress, style my hair, and act.
‘Most of the time, however, people question my gender — and that’s how I like it.
‘I always consider myself non-binary because I never feel 100 percent female or male. I’m more of a combination of what we feel a man and woman to be.
‘Usually, I reject the male and female terms completely. But as I said, [I] sometimes feel a little feminine.’
On days when they feel either more feminine or more masculine – and as a result this is reflected in their appearance – it can be difficult to go out, Courtney said, because they fear being referred to as ‘she’ or ‘he’.
Days when they feel ‘neutral’ can also lead to complications. Courtney said they have been threatened and accused of being a ‘pervert’ for using the women’s bathroom.
Courtney wrote: ‘On days where I feel masculine or even neutral, I fear expressing that.
‘If I have to go to the bathroom in public and walk into the women’s restroom, people question it. I’ve even been kicked out before.’
Still, I wonder: what is nature and what is nurture? What in me is the result of natural processes, gene selection, a millennia of selective breeding coming down to create a female hominid with brown eyes, brown hair, and a bad attitude, and how much of that is a result of environmental factors, the way I was raised, the people around me? Where do I draw the line between chemical and insubstantial?
I suppose it doesn’t matter much. What it is has come down to is this: there are damages to be assessed. The primary concern is no longer the how or the why that lead us here, but the mess that we are left with. I am a mess, and this is a family disease. The burden of recovery is heaped on the survivor, on top of the burden of shame, which is shared among all parties. I survived my upbringing, when untreated mental illness and alcoholism threatened to ruin me. I continue to share the shame.
I don’t want my daughter to be a survivor.
I am breaking the cycle. I am doing something that my forebears, all survivors of their own circumstances, neglected or were unable to do: I have decided to stop surviving my life, and start living it. Starting with treatment, then by defining my own spirituality, and finally, with gratitude, I have begun making the shift from victim to victor.
I am not perfect, nor do I strive to be. I am alive, fighting to live my life free from the shackles of a mind that sometimes wants to kill me. When I find myself taking inventory of my sadness, and why and how it came to be, I must make a conscious shift toward gratitude and remind myself that this illness does not determine what kind of mother, wife, or person I am capable of being. This illness does not prevent me from being the absolute best interpreter I can be, nor the absolute best friend and ally. Everyday is a fight and everyday is a victory — because I have yet to give up.