I’ve always struggled with my identity; who I am and what I stand for. The ebb and flow of anxiety and depression have only exacerbated those feelings with ruminating cycles of self-doubt and delusion. When I was finally diagnosed several years ago I felt as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I wasn’t sure why but there was that brief moment when I could step back and just take a breath. Only after did I learn that I had to be careful who I told. Since my diagnosis, I’ve gradually been able to tell more and more people, continually widening the circle from family, to friends, and even mere acquaintances. I am no longer ashamed of my mental illness, it is part of who I am and identifying with it has helped ground me more than I ever imagined it would. Some people have to disassociate from their mental illness and I get that; but I am the opposite, I feed off of it. I try every day to channel it into something great, something that transcends me. Part of the reason I am writing today is to practice this transcendence, and my hope is that it reaches at least one other person out there that gets it.
I’m an academic and have been in post-secondary education for over a decade now. I’ve had anxiety since childhood, those feelings and bodily symptoms became normal for me as I thought I was just the sensitive kid. It wasn’t until undergraduate studies when I realized that something was different about me. It was my first serious bout of depression, and being a good university student, I did what was expected of me and attempted to drink my sorrows away. Well that didn’t work, it actually made everything worse. I found my ray of light in poetry and philosophy for a short time here and there. However, the negative feelings and voices were persistent and distractions were only temporary at best. In retrospect, it would have been extremely useful for me to seek professional help at this point in my life, but I had a persistent belief that stuck with me for many years to follow. I had the idea, a myth that our society perpetuates, that my creativity and intellectual capacities were tied directly to the ups and downs of my illness. I was petrified at the thought that trying to make myself better would take away what made me successful. Everyone knows that all the great minds and artists of the past suffered from mental illnesses, the list is long…and the list was very persuasive.
It took several increasingly disabling breakdowns and the help of my partner before I became open to the idea of seeking help. For me, it wasn’t the delusions, the depression, the extreme anxiety and panic attacks that put me over the edge. It was simply a moth. I was showering during an exam period one year and a giant moth appeared before me. It flew around the shower, impervious to the water and its jet stream. It was beautiful but frightening. Nothing about it made sense and just as fast as it appeared it had vanished. I scoured my apartment looking for the creature until I finally realized that it wasn’t real. I was scared that day of an imaginary moth. That very same feeling of fear is what I now get when I think about the stigma I could possibly face about my medical diagnosis. It shouldn’t be like that, but the only way it will get better is if we talk about it openly. Even though it’s easy for me to admit I have a mental illness to someone in person, the idea of having something permanent out there on the internet is a hard pill to swallow. That is why I am writing today, to put a little piece of my soul into something concrete and real.
I am no longer ashamed of my mental illness but that is not why I hesitate to write about it today. I am afraid for my livelihood, I am afraid for the food on my table and the roof over my head. I am afraid for the children I may have some day. I am afraid if I tell the world, even if they still like who I am, they won’t want to hire me. There is no reason why they shouldn’t; I am an extremely hard worker, personable and intelligent. That sounds like an ideal job candidate does it not? The problem is that our society still holds extreme prejudice when it comes to mental illness and holding employment. We need to fix it. We need to fight the stigma.
Andrea is currently working on his PhD in medical ethics and philosophy at a Canadian University. He was first diagnosed at the age of 25 but has been struggling with mood disorders his entire life.
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