Stigma Fighters: Philip B.

I suffer from depression. I’ve struggled with my mental health since my teens, though at that time I didn’t really know that’s what it was for the longest time. It has taken many subtle forms which I didn’t realize were part and parcel of it, or really abnormal in any way. A lack of focus, periods of intense lethargy and apathy, sever insomnia… these were all things I came to view as normal parts of life, and though they seemed to be odd sometimes, it was mostly written off as just a quirk.

Now, though, I understand that they are entwined with my mental state. My childhood environment did not allow for discussion of things like mental health. It was seen as a weakness, or as a temporary condition which was being inflated. For me, the idea was basically just that I had to toughen up, soldier on, and ignore things. Coping was easy and unhealthy. It was more acceptable to engage in risky behaviors than to seek help, so that was how I did it. Self-harm was a huge part of my coping mechanism, and I avoided seeking any kind of outside help like the plague.

I flirted with suicidal ideation on multiple occasions, and in my teen years made multiple attempts, which, true to the fashion of the local culture, were kept from my friends and family. I won’t bore you with a lot of gritty details.

When I entered college my coping mechanisms became healthier, turning to work and education to keep myself occupied, but I was still in denial about the state I was in. Fatigue and exhaustion were better companions than my thoughts and feelings. I tried to stay active and stay busy. The mental discomfort and blurriness were overcome by working myself to the bone.

As my undergraduate career came to a close, I begin to spiral lower as my life lost focus. It wasn’t until I began my graduate education that things came to a head. I had seen my mental state push my loved ones away, and alienate friends, family, and co-workers. It became a struggle to even put the faces on, to feign normalcy. I saw a decline in my academic competence that it really struck me that maybe I needed help.

Funny, isn’t it? Self-harm and suicidal ideation were just hiccups, but the second my grades started falling below expectations, I knew there was trouble. For me, it was the final straw. I’d lived with depression my entire life, but it took a lapse in something I had always been very capable and comfortable with before for it to really hit me. Given my background, I struggled for weeks with the idea of reaching out to the campus services, and it took a long argument with a dear friend to convince me to finally schedule the appointment.

The argument is important, because it focused on the illogical nature of avoiding treatment: mental health issues are not flaws in character, they are disruptions in our brain biochemistry. They must be treated just like any other disease or disorder would be. I struggled with therapy, and with just the idea of going. It took a lot of support and love to get me to a place where weekly sessions were bearable. I needed the support and love and guidance. I needed the constant reminders, because to me, every session I went to and every antidepressant I took was a blow to my pride, or, more specifically, to my intellectual vanity. The treatment, though, has helped.

Here I am, not too far down the road from this point of transition, and feeling the changes in my mood. The struggle is very real, and very difficult, and the risks are high if we avoid seeking treatment. Talking about mental health isn’t always easy. Many people simply cannot grasp the subtle nuances of mental health compared to an emotional state. They can be dismissive, insulting, or even overbearing. Good intentions don’t always mean so much, and so frank discussion is avoided. It’s a hassle to explain that you hate waking up every day. It’s a chore to have to put on a happy face and pretend to be anything more than empty. We begin to internalize these pressures, and they create a barrier to us bettering ourselves. How do you discuss such an important issue with someone who doesn’t understand, and always says the wrong things? Mostly patience, but that isn’t an easy conversation to start,, let alone feel like it isn’t being taken seriously.

For me, stigma was not realized as a direct interaction with ignorant people. I have observed it, and this kept me quiet and avoidant. Stigma has been a slow, aching alienation people, and from seeking treatment. The people around me were unaware, and I let the general feeling of otherness keep me from seeking treatment for a long time, instead relying on unhealthy behaviors to cope. I’ve found, now, that writing and music both play significant roles in my coping strategies. For me, stigma was a pervasive miasma of social dissociation, creeping into my interactions.

On the best days, it can still be bad. On the worst days, I still fall victim to some of these ideas. Self-stigma is the hardest to overcome, I believe, because it becomes so ingrained into our psyches. To give in to stigma is to give in to a culture of ignorance and fear as to what comprises mental health issues, and to deny ourselves the right to better ourselves and our mental state. There is a time to stop letting stigma dictate our personal health, and a time to not only reach out to others, but to take a stand for those who may not be aware that it is okay to speak out. You are loved. You are not alone. It does get better. I am proud of you for coming as far as you have.

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Bio: Philip is a displaced New Yorker from a small border town, currently a transient looking for a place to call home (at least for a little while). Scientist by education, science nerd by passion. Mediocre musician and poet, aspiring to greater heights of mediocrity. Blog: http://embracethecoda.blogspot.com/ Twitter: @EmbraceTheCoda