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Stigma Fighters : Kate Byrne

When one finds out that a friend has cancer one’s heart breaks. There may not be a cure for the cancer as yet, but damned if people aren’t trying. Everybody has lives that have been touched by cancer – whether family or friend. Heck, for me every Holy Week reminds me of a close family friend from when I was growing up who passed away right around Maundy Thursday. This was my first close and intimate experience with the effect cancer can have on our lives (sadly it wouldn’t be the last). When one finds out that a loved one is HIV+, one struggles with how to respond, but hugs and love typically ensue. Hell, when one finds out a loved one has a cold, soup and orange juice will happen.

But when one finds out that a friend or loved one is suffering from major depression or any other mental health issue there aren’t questions about how to respond appropriately. In the absence of a guidebook sometimes there’s no reaction at all, but worse than no reaction is a verbal or non-verbal eye roll. After all, there are so many people that see mental health issues as “fake” or “manufactured.” I know that, even as someone who has been diagnosed as an adult with ADHD and major depression, I sometimes mentally roll my eyes when I hear about six and seven year olds being diagnosed with ADHD. Part of me wonders how much is ADHD and how much is them being six or seven, but that doesn’t mean there’s no validity in these diagnoses. When someone who does fight these battles every day questions said diagnoses why are we surprised when folks not facing these situations question the diagnoses’ validity?

The questions one endures when one suffers from mental health issues are insulting and hurtful. They’re not always, “How can we help you?” They’re “what went so wrong in YOUR life?” “What happened?” “Did someone hurt you?” And, yes, those do often play a part in the mental health issues one is trying to alleviate, but not always. I mean, I’ll be honest. My life is cushy. I have not just friends who love me – who refuse to give up on me – but family who won’t do so either.

I haven’t endured abuse. I haven’t been assaulted – sexually or physically. I have a job. I have a roof over my head. I have a whole slew of comforts that many in the United States (let alone the rest of the world) don’t have. But for the most part the only ones asking what they can do to help are friends and loved ones facing their own health Issues, mental or otherwise. I can’t speak for others, but I hate to talk with them about what I’m going through when I know they already have so much on their plates.

Another thing? Everything has a ribbon nowadays. From X, Y, Z cancers to autism to this/that/the-other-disease-that-affects-1%-of-the-population. And that’s great – awareness needs to be brought, funds need to be raised for these causes because they are so important and touch so many, but when it comes to mental health issues we don’t get a ribbon. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want a ribbon. I doubt there are many people experiencing mental health issues who would want a ribbon, but I know I wish mental health issues would cease to be taboo. Cease to be seen as something that only affects the “bad” kids. Cease to be thought of as something far rarer than it actually is.

Don’t take this to mean that I want more people to experience mental health issues. I don’t. It means I want fewer people to feel ashamed of their mental health issues (okay, I don’t want anyone to feel ashamed of their mental health issues). And I don’t know if, even if a cure was miraculously found for my mental health issues, if I would pursue it. After all, my mental health issues are a big part of what makes me me. I wouldn’t recognize me without my major depression or ADHD, but the thought that the people who are looking for a cure are considered quacks or kooks, or unworthy of funding, because of the “fake” illness they’re trying to cure is absurd and insulting. Mental health issues lead to death and injury much like heart disease does. Yes, sometimes it’s easier to see the scars that come from mental health battles, but if you’re good at hiding the self-injuring it’s a lot harder to pinpoint where the sickness is. A cure for cancer or AIDS may be a long way away, but at least there’s a target for the bright minds in the science fields to attack. When I can’t find the words to describe how I hurt, when I don’t feel justified feeling hurt, there’s nothing clear cut for scientists and doctors to attack.

When my major depression is different than that of Joey or Jenny or whomever – even though we’ve all been diagnosed with major depression – it’s going to be tough for doctors and scientists to figure out just what they should be trying to cure. And often people talking about curing mental health issues aren’t talking about “vanquishing the issues,” but more about “fixing the issues.” That sort of language choice implies that we’re not okay just the way we are. Do we need something to regulate our feelings and thoughts? Sure, yes, but that doesn’t mean we’re not okay the way we are just like receiving chemotherapy doesn’t make you less of a person because you’re trying to kill the cancer cells.

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IMG_7177Cafeinating. Loving. Friends. Family. Maine. SLU.

Kate can be found at Huffington Post  and Twitter

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  • http://astrongradio.tumblr.com Allison Strong

    Hi Kate, I printed out your post on paper and went to beach. Couldn’t believe what I read! Am I correct yu have MDD and ADHD? I sometimes hit the wall with my antidepressants, leaving me holding the bag of depression for however long it takes. Sometimes the science and ability to target a cure for a specific mental illness feels like sloppy science, and even my guy of 15 years agrees with me on that. I read a good book about a long long episode of depression and some my friends have depression. Some of my friends have Schizoaffective, don’t know many more. Yes, we should have a ribbon or something. I self inured as an exercise bulimic and escaped the worst of the consequences until 2007 when my back totally went out. I hope you keep writing.

    • Kate B.

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Allison.

      And yes, you read correctly – MDD and ADHD. I might grow to hate the letter D as much as I often hate myself.

      As for the writing, there’s many a time that – in addition to my loved ones – my writing gets me over life’s hurdles.

      Which is to say, I don’t immediately foresee myself ceasing to write.

      • http://astrongradio.tumblr.com Allison Strong

        yes writing is the only thing I’m still interested in when I’m depressed. I am working on a story for Stigma for a couple of weeks. I’ve been reading all stigma posts but yours stood out.

        • Kate B.

          I give you kudos for being interested in writing when you’re on a downswing. Me? I’m interested in sleeping. And Peanut Butter M&Ms. That’s about it.