Years of self-deprecation and chronic embitterment gave me pause, and I withheld my Stigma Fighters submission for a week, maybe two, before I finally sent it. Who are you to be glorious, loved, appreciated? You’re not important. You’re damaged goods. Then my ego, viciously overcompensating for my id, chimed in, Besides, who would gain anything from your sad-sack story? There are people out there with real problems.
Who needs enemies, when I’ve got the voices in my head? But I needed this community, though it would take time to understand why.
The stigmatization of mental illness was completely integrated throughout my own subconscious, throughout my family’s infrastructure, and, of course, in my community. Having a prescription for Prozac was one thing, but tow older brothers who were paranoid schizophrenics? That was quite another. As a young girl, it didn’t occur to me that we lived any differently than other families, not until I was old enough to tell stories of brutal arguments between my father and older brother, the police being called to our home, explaining what the code “fifty-one-fifty” meant, and seeing my little friends’ eyes widen in awe and in fear. I told my best childhood girlfriend that we screened our calls because my oldest brother was crazy and didn’t think anything of it. She told her mother, who then ended all sleep-overs, playdates, and after-school get-togethers. I didn’t understand why until my mother sat me down to explain that not everyone has a “crazy” brother. If you want to have better luck with your friends, she told me, don’t tell them about your brothers. Finally, I understood – our family was different, and in some intangible way that I’d not yet come to fathom, dangerous.
When I was a teenager, I watched as my brothers became increasingly despondent and nomadic, drifting farther away from home, eventually becoming homeless, which in turn worsened their mental illnesses. When I did have contact with them, it was brief, emotionally charged, and frightening. I resented my mother for bringing these unstable individuals into my life, unable to appreciate at that time that these were here children, whom she loved and was attempting to care for. All I know was mental illness, again, had interjected fear, instability, and unhappiness into our home.
In 2004, my mother, my stepfather, and I moved to Hawaii. We would occasionally hear news of my brothers from family members who had seen them our and around in California, but our mother made contact with them again before she died of cancer in March of 2008. Since then the horrible moments have come and gone – the moments when I and my remaining siblings, or our family members, have had to tell our brothers that Mom isn’t with us anymore. It made me sick, each time, to think of my mother’s five children, islands unto ourselves, cast asunder by time and space and disrupted minds, unable to share the grief of her passing, yet the barriers between us remain. How can you unlearn stigma and fear?
So, mental illness was always part of the landscape of my life. I was in therapy early-on, starting at 13. I was a cutter, briefly; had some “bad habits” – nail biting, dermatilomania – but overall I was very well adjusted. I tried Prozac for a while, but it didn’t really hit the spot. I was better off than on. Years went by. I had bouts of mild to severe depression that were successfully managed by therapy. I never had anyone call me “mentally ill” and I certainly never referred to myself by that term, which was obviously reserved for people who, like my brothers, were seriously fucked up.
And then my mom died.
My world up-ended, and I cannot, will not, even try to begin to tell you, Reader, how I can never get over it. It took four years of trying, failing, and getting very seriously ill to finally pick up the phone and tell someone, “I’m sick and I need help.” That was the beginning of getting treatment, a diagnosis, and coming to terms with my own personal stigmatization of mental illness.
It was slow going at first, but as they say, it began with one small step; by admitting to a loved one that I was sick – not just depressed, not just grieving or bereaved – I was casting off the chains of my life-long emotional confinement. I said the words apprehensively, waiting for the fallout, but it never came. I thought of my mother, who would often deplore the presence of the “elephant in the room,” that invisible unnamable thing that everyone knew about but no one dare speak of, and I knew – she’d died wearing her shackles of fear, shame, stigma, and despair.
I didn’t want to live that way, though I wasn’t sure how to avoid such a family legacy. The first step I was sure of, but the next were on the path I was following blindly, waiting for the brush to be cleared before me. That’s how I found Stigma Fighters. The stories inspired me, encouraged me, and while I didn’t think that mine could possibly contend, I took a chance and sent it anyway. The overwhelming response I received from the founder Sarah Fader immediately put my fears to rest and made me feel as if I’d stumbled out of the briars and into a clearing full of people with like-minds and gentle souls. These were individuals who understood and valued the same things that I did. And with whom I instantly shared a common goal: end the stigma surrounding mental illness to raise awareness about the rest of us, people like me, who are living breathing, functioning with mental illness. Fear free.
Sarah C is a wife, mother, interpreter, advocate, and survivor. When not working as a sign language interpreter for the Hawaii Deaf community, she offers intuitive readings using tarot, astrology, and other divinatory techniques. You can read her blog at www.therealsarahc.com and follow her on Twitter @realsarahc.
Sarah C. can be found on her blog and Twitter.
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