The secret shame we shouldn't feel
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
As the world progresses into an era full of fear, sickness, job loss and overall chaos, some things that were kept hidden come to light. From the racism deeply ingrained into our Western societies to the sexism of the publishing industry, from the entitlement of some who have never known hardships to the tyranny of some in power. And in between all of this, we see something emerge. Something I feel the need to address more in depth.
For the longest time have we focused on physical strength, disdaining those perceived as weak in favour of people able to lift a car or run super fast or do a thousand push ups. We have praised physical health and advocated for weight loss and muscle building and cardio. And it’s a good thing. But. Not once have we stopped to consider the strength of someone who spends their entire life having to make a constant effort to distinguish between hallucinations and reality. The will power that comes with reining yourself back in a manic episode, or pushing forward in a depressed phase. The courage it takes to simply enter a store while your body gets in fight or flight mode as soon as you’re in the presence of strangers.
So today, I want to talk about mental health. Trauma, depression, anxiety, because these are my resident demons, but I will try to expand into even less known territories and answer questions as best I can. To that end, I have been looking for questions people might have about the topic, and I will ramble on as I try to answer. Hopefully someone might get something out of it.
Let’s start with the basic. Mental health issues, illnesses and disorders are still very taboo. We have to fight against that every single day. Please keep it in mind when talking to people: they might be struggling, and hiding it.
If that’s you, I want you to know that you are not alone. There are millions of us, quietly fighting, secretly ashamed, always hoping nobody is going to harm us for it. I see you. I know. But we have to put an end to the stigma and the fear, and I am asking you to help. Please. Talk to people. Explain what you’re dealing with. Yes, some will reject you, some may hurt you, it will be hard and painful and terrifying and so very freeing. Because some will understand. And some will help. And some will even love you and the strength and courage you show in your struggles every day.
Dare to say “I’m sorry I can’t come to your party, I suffer from crippling social anxiety and it is way too much for me. But I will happily join a video call to celebrate with you from the other side of the screen.”
Explain your symptoms. “I have PTSD, and if certain topics come in the conversation it might trigger flashbacks, which means I will physically re-live the pain and terror of a traumatizing event and perhaps lose my ability to talk and move for hours, so I’d be grateful if we could avoid them.”
Set boundaries. “No I will not come shopping with you, my depression is draining my strength, I can’t do it today.”
Offer advice. “I’ll panic if you ask me open questions, so try to give me options instead. Instead of asking me what I want to eat, ask if I’d prefer burgers, pizza, ramen or salad.”
Seek help. Therapy is not the big bad wolf it's said to be. It helps. Not everyone, but a lot of people. Try it. It's worth a shot. And know that a big part of the reason you don't want to seek therapy is your illness itself. It feels threatened. It knows it can't win against you. Because you're so very strong.
Be patient. It can be hard to understand the invisible struggle we are going through. You will have to repeat yourself. They will forget sometimes. I had to explain to my mom why going to the grocery store was not a simple feat for me. I had to explain to a friend that I can’t just call the doctor. I had to repeat to myself, everyday, that I was not a failure.
Because I’m not. We aren’t failures. We are different. We are often pretty creative, too.
Can’t remember your name? Look at your ID card and immediately put the first name you see as your username everywhere. That’s your name, you’ll see and hear it everyday, people will remind you of it all the time. When in doubt, log on to Twitter.
Have an appointment but you’re afraid to lose track of time or forget what it’s about? Set two alarms, and tell your friends about the thing. They’ll ask about it, keeping it fresh enough in your mind that when the first alarm rings you’ll know what it was about. And if you don’t, tell your friends “I have an alarm but can’t remember for what, did I have a thing today?” They’ll help you.
Too tired to do anything? Give yourself rewards. If I do the dishes I can play my favourite video game. If I go for a walk I can eat a cookie. If I go to the store I can buy some bacon and eat my favourite meal tonight.
For those of you reading who find this preposterous, who don’t understand why I’m making such a fuss about buying the damned plug extension I need in order to work at a table instead of standing up, ask yourself this. Was there ever something that was too hard for you? That you just couldn’t do? Where you didn’t succeed? Were there ever any obstacles in your way?
No? Think again. That job you didn’t get. That person who stood you up. That piece of furniture you couldn’t lift. The sink that broke and you didn’t know how to fix it.
We all experience setbacks, struggles, failures. Just because ours are different doesn’t mean they’re less important. You called a plumber for that sink. We call a therapist for that anxiety. It’s just harder to fix.
I will get the plug. Someday. It will take extra steps, maybe medication. But it will happen. Just like you did get a job, even after the job interview that didn't go as you hoped. It took extra steps, maybe a new resume. But it happened.
I was asked to talk about the least expected challenges people with mental health issues face, those hidden obstacles that people don’t think about. And I asked a friend to tell me about his struggles with schizophrenia. He said something that has struck me, and I think answers that question well.
He said “I learned what type of crazy is publicly accepted. What type of crazy makes people laugh and how I can transpond the horrifically insane things I was experiencing into some form of entertainment. Twist the story just a little bit to give them a better punch line and I found a way to be me, but likeable.”
The main challenge we all face, no matter our mental illness, issue, disorder or syndrome, is fitting in. How to have a conversation with someone. How to interact with our teachers, our coworkers, our crushes, our friends. Our family. How to use our differences to make other people laugh instead of making them uncomfortable. How to not scare people away. Especially with heavily stereotyped illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, making yourself look and act and sound as close to normal as possible is a necessity if you don’t want to be ostracised. And it’s exhausting. It’s hard. It’s frustrating.
For years I’ve had to act like I was all right, smile and be pleasant to everyone, while inside I was in a tremendous amount of pain. As soon as I was alone I would curl up into a ball and quietly scream in agony while my body went through every second of whichever traumatizing experience it was living again. And I would have to force my voice out no matter how painful it was, to answer the phone, to walk up and down stairs on legs that I could barely control, to make coffee with shaking hands, to hide the fear behind a smile. In time I even forgot how to genuinely smile.
Imagine for a second. That has been my life for 10 years. Ten. Years. From about 16 to about 26. Imagine going to school like this. Graduating like this. Figuring out a career, going to job interviews, keeping a job. Finally I acknowledged that I couldn’t stand it anymore. I quit a job that I loved because it was becoming impossible to hide this. I shouldn’t have had to. But there was no way for me to explain what I was going through, and I no longer had the energy to try.
Now I want you to imagine going through life without any way of discerning what is true and what isn’t. Is it a phone buzzing or someone screaming? Is the world around me really on fire or am I just upset and too hot? How the hell are you supposed to interact with strangers if all your attention is devoted on figuring out if they’re really there, if it’s really their voice, if they’re here to hurt you or not?
Imagine having to pretend you’re enjoying a meal when your stomach is hurting because it has shrunk so much, but everyone expects you to eat a “standard” portion. That’s what recovering anorexia survivors go through. And they will be watched, at every meal, for the rest of their lives, by people who don’t understand how much it hurts.
These are only examples based on my own experiences and those of people I have talked to about their struggles. I could go on for thousands of words, but I think you got the point. That’s what we face. That’s the invisible challenge, the unexpected obstacle, the burden slowing us down. Acting “normal”. Because not doing so would be social suicide.
So how do you, reader who isn’t struggling with your mental health, deal, interact, and communicate with us? With an open mind. All we’re asking is that you accept us as we are, and that means not making faces when a person with OCD has to open and close the same bottle 7 times before drinking. They don’t like it any more than you do. That means not telling someone with depression to “just get over it”, or “it’s all in your head”. They know. That means letting people eat what they want when they want in the quantities they want. Really. That means being patient, being kind, and remembering that we are human too.
Let me repeat that. We are human. We have hopes and dreams and fears and goals. We have memories, good and bad. We have a personality outside of our illnesses. I am more than a person with PTSD. My friend is more than his schizophrenia. My mother can’t be reduced to her anorexia. Just like a marathonian can also be a father and an author and a man with a great sense of humour. So when talking to someone with mental health issues, remember that. You are, first and foremost, talking to a human being.