Stigma Fighters: Susan P.

I’d like to say I’m immune from stigma. After 3 years of blogging about mental health, and 2 years as an advocate, you’d think I’d be able to shake the shame surrounding my diagnoses of postpartum anxiety (and postpartum depression, antenatal depression, postpartum OCD, and generalized anxiety disorder) with ease. And from the outside, it must seem that I do.

I speak freely about my experiences with friends and family. I’ve hosted public events, fundraising and educating my local communities. I write for Postpartum Progress, the most widely-read blog on maternal mood and anxiety disorders. And I’m helping organize and direct an entire conference dedicated to those Warrior Moms who have survived from them.

But what you probably don’t see? Is that when I speak in person about my mental illness, I measure my words carefully, making note of my audience and surroundings before I ever open my mouth. I watch the face of my conversation partner for signs of disgust disguised as pity, and I find myself wondering at times if that mom from playgroup doesn’t ever drop her kid off to play because “she’s afraid I might go cray-zee.”

You see, the only stigma I’m immune to is the one I hold against myself.

When I began therapy 4 years ago, I firmly believed that only “those people” went crazy and saw therapists. I honestly asked my psychiatrist what the timeline was for my antidepressant, hoping naively for it to be like taking an antibiotic. “Take this for 7 days and you’ll be cured,” I imagined Dr. J saying. Instead I was hit with uncertainty and a path much longer than I believed I could walk. I fought the therapy, going through the motions but not really doing the work. I neglected to take my medications, insisting that they weren’t working, when I know now that I just wasn’t taking enough. I believed what pop culture and society had conditioned me to think: If I just worked a little harder, I could be happier. That my mental illness defined me as “less than.”

That stigma held me back from recovery for almost a year.

And then something shifted. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but slowly I began to think of my mental illness as separate from me. Not a failure but a burden. I stopped believing that I had to be “cured” in order to be happy. The day I accepted that I would always suffer from mental illness is the day I truly began to heal.

Today, I take my pills, morning and night, without shame or regret. I think of my dear friend Melissa as I struggle to break the Citalopram in half and somehow her treatment for diabetes gives me perspective. For she is not “less than” for supplementing her body with the insulin it refuses to provide. And when I take a nap in the afternoon to melt away the anxiety and prevent rage from leaking all over my two small children, I think of her logs and her carbohydrate calculations. She is not “a diabetic,” but a person with diabetes. Her struggle helps me to see mine for what it is: I am a person suffering from a medical condition whose treatments include chemical drugs and self-care. Period.

I am eternally grateful to have grown into this wisdom. But I’m here today, writing for Stigma Fighters because it’s not enough. As long as I have to filter my words and fear that I may be judged for an involuntary brain disorder, it’s not enough. As long as society continues to paint mothers who take anti-anxiety and anti-depressants as “lazy” or “trendy,” it’s not enough. And as long as women with freshly birthed babes hide their intrusive thoughts for fear of being stripped of their children by CPS, it’s not enough.

So I will keep writing. I will keep meeting the eyes of strangers and telling them my story – in the hope that putting a face on mental illness can and will change the world.

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Susan is an elementary teacher-turned stay-at-home-mom who has her hands in a little bit of everything. When she’s not parenting or teaching music lessons, you can find her blogging about mental health or crocheting her anxiety away. She writes at http://learned-happiness.com, is Co-Director of the Postpartum Progress Warrior Mom Conference, pimps her wares for yarn money at http://etsy.com/shop/learnedhappiness, and tweets @learndhappiness.