I was raised by a depressed mother. My Mom’s depression dictated much of my life. When it was not under control, when she was unable to “climb out of a hole,” when she needed someone to talk to, I was there. Because of this, I learned about depression from a very young age. My understanding evolved from “Mom is going to the talking doctor” to something much more clinical. But through it all, I fought to understand the disease and to recognize that my Mom was my Mom. The depressed version of her had nothing to do with me, but could only be attributed to her brain chemistry, something she had no control over.
Having a depressed mother heightened my awareness towards depression and other mental illnesses. I was intensely aware of the moods and feelings of my peers and those in my immediate surroundings. It could almost be described as an overwhelming need to be empathetic. I understood and I wanted to make sure people knew I understood—that people felt understood. That compulsivity has grown as I have gotten older. I am constantly tuning myself in to others and their feelings, which can leave me feeling alone and empty. But even in that void, I find myself constantly thinking about, advocating for, and worrying about those I know with mental illnesses. I grew up surrounded by the stigmas that faced my mother and that, by association, faced me. I would lie to my friends when my Mom was put on a psych hold in the hospital.
Even by the time I got to college, I did not tell anyone I was driving her three times a week to receive electroconvulsive therapy. Fortunately I got to the point where I could be more honest about my mother’s condition and share how it was fiercely affecting my world and my being. Her mental illness became a shared one, if only because I was accompanying her on her journey and trying to be the best support system and advocate that I could be.
But my Mother’s depression is not my story. Her life, her illness, her treatments are just that: hers. That is not my story to tell. What is my story is one of chronic pain and how my experiences with stigmas against mental illness have helped me to overcome the stigmas that many people associate with chronic pain.
Chronic pain and depression have a very big thing in common: they are, or at least are perceived to be, invisible illnesses.
The last thing that my pain is is invisible. I am acutely aware of my pain from the moment I open my eyelids in the morning until the time I am mercifully lulled to sleep by pure exhaustion after my pain-induced insomnia decides to give in and let me rest for a few hours.
I have had a headache for seven years. Yes. One headache; the entire time; never stopping; not even for a moment. The pain used to make me cry and scream and miss out on life. In many ways, my early days of being in pain were similar to my Mom’s darkest days of depression. The pain was controlling my world, and I could not let a headache dictate my story.
The first year with my headache was quite dramatic. Radical measures were being taken, I was on all kinds of heavy-duty medications, and, ultimately a surgical team decided that brain surgery (a craniotomy, to be precise) was the “next necessary step.” Ever since the failed operation, my life has been a series of “next necessary steps.” Each new doctor was adamant that they’re prescription, they’re treatment, they’re recommendation was going to end my pain (that is, until it failed and they chose to decide it was psychosomatic rather than considering the possibility that their medical approach was simply ineffective for me). As a teenage girl, it was incredibly frustrating to be told by much of the medical community that I must be making up my pain (you know, for attention or something…as we ladies do, especially if we’re on our periods). NEWSFLASH: I am neither that creative nor attention-starved to keep up a lie for this many years. Why would I choose to undergo countless (painful) treatments??? Why would I make up a condition that has wreaked havoc on my world, encumbering my life plans, altering relationships, and sending me into depressions???
After graduating from college last May with honors and a double-major, I realized how much I had accomplished in spite of my pain. Despite the stigmas surrounding people with chronic pain and all other “invisible” illnesses, I overcame so much and never gave up. Although it continues to be challenging when I meet with new doctors and they say “…but you finished college and you did well—you could not have possibility done that while being in the pain that you describe!” I can and I did. We all do it, every day.
This blog is Stigma Fighters, and not only do we fight against the stigmas of mental illness, pain, and more, but we fight for ourselves. Each day that we wake up, shower, go to work, are there for our friends and families, nurture our bodies and minds, and take on new challenges we are fighting and we are demonstrating that our “invisible” illnesses are not in control. Even the days that we say “Hey, I need a mental health day!” or “You know what, today I am in so much pain and just need to let my body rest,” we are still fighting. Our illnesses are part of who we are and we make the necessary accommodations, but they do not define us. Our strength, our advocacy, our fighting spirits—those are what define us.
Sabrina is a recent college graduate (currently seeking employment!) who lives in Southern California. She plans to move back to the East Coast where she and her future French Bulldog will rule the town and fight against stigmas together