I’ve noticed something about the stigma surrounding mental illness. It grows with time. It mutates. At first it’s just a buzzword “stigma“, then it’s an occasional sensation and eventually it feels as real as a brick wall.
When this episode first began back in December 2015 I was still functioning pretty well. I was working and parenting. So when it turned out my mental health was in a bad way I didn’t feel the stigma because I still saw myself as normal and as contributing. I wasn’t going to shout from the rooftops about the antidepressants I had started but equally I was happy to chat casually about them and the process of waiting for counselling. I didn’t feel judged. Lots of people had similar experiences and had been on antidepressants. At this level the stigma was, in my experience, non-existent. Well, OK, internally I felt a great sense of shame but that’s par for the course no?
Time moved on. I worsened. Days off work sick happened. That internal sense of shame burned more fiercely. The embarrassment of making work commitments and then breaking them. Over and over and over again. Unreliable. No one ever pulled me up on any of this. To my face they were very understanding but I began to feel different. Not quite part of the team and I had no recourse because any work I didn’t do had to be picked up by someone else. I felt awful. Everyone knew or suspected that I was having mental health troubles again for this was not the first time.
Then I tried to kill myself. More time off work. Having to discuss it with HR and occupational health and knowing it would leak out to certain people. Safety plans put in place. Work were actually really supportive. It’s hard to see what more they could have done and that’s excellent. Stigma isn’t just about that though, it’s about feelings too. I was no longer just a teacher. I was a crazy teacher with a safety plan. I now felt very separate to my colleagues. If anyone made jokes about mental health eg trigger warnings or safe places then it’d cut me deep. These were things others laughed about but not me. I was scared of their opinions of me but no one said anything.
Then I made some Facebook posts. Many people offered supportive messages which I appreciated. Others though, well, they faded away. I remember emailing one person about a work related matter and they replied that they were leaving me be as they guessed that I had other things to contend with at the moment after reading some of my Facebook posts. They were actively doing nothing. I was really embarrassed. I’d embarrassed myself discussing my personal mental health on such a public forum. One of my brothers sent a message that was essentially verbal abuse – because I was talking about my mental health and he was keen to point out that he and my other brothers were normal. I deactivated Facebook. I knew I couldn’t be trusted to only post ‘normal’ stuff (whatever that means). My mental health struggles fill all of my days at the moment; to feel that I couldn’t talk about the main thing that filled my day seemed absurd so best to leave Facebook altogether. No one really noticed. I just faded away and no one came looking. I mean, they knew I was ill but enquires wondering how I’m getting on are few and far between. I do understand: it’s awkward and people are busy. What do they say? What do I say? Hey how are you? Not great, I’m lying in bed trying not to hurt myself. Right, errrrr…… The stigma of self-harming and feeling suicidal is so huge. It’s like people entirely miss the point – what’s wrong with her that she’s want to do that?!?? See, you’re missing the point. It’s because there’s something wrong with me that I want to do that and it’s actually an illness. I’m not just bad and selfish.
So time moves on. I don’t work anymore. When I left there was no card. No goodbye drinks. I wasn’t mentioned on any of the staff leaving emails (as I would have been had I been taking maternity leave). I disappeared out of the door one day and that was that. The plan is that I’m on a sabbatical year and return to my job in September 2017 but the way I left…felt so…shameful. No one knows what to say so no one says anything.
Today I walked to the supermarket and I realised how far into stigma I have fallen in 9 months. 9 months ago I’d finish work drive to the supermarket (not allowed to drive anymore), swan in swinging my lanyard, pick up my antidepressant prescription and maybe some wine (I don’t drink anymore) and drive home. Now? Well the thought of the supermarket can invoke a panic attack. I often see pupils who know me and it feels awful. Like being stood there in a swimming costume or something. Look at me. Or don’t. Actually please don’t look at me. Today I was in joggy bottoms, trainers, a jumper, and a bright pink waterproof jacket. Basically I looked an absolute sight and, to be fair, today was a good day. I’ve gone looking much worse. I worry about people realising what is wrong with me. How will I command the respect of teenagers if they know I’m mental? What will their parents think? Will they empathise or will they find fault in my work? What if people from my son’s school see me? Will they know? The Facebook posts and being off work and looking like this? People must know I’m mental.
It worries me and I noticed that because back in December I didn’t worry about stigma. As time has passed, people have faded from my life, the illness has grown and so, too, has the stigma. It’s not that I get abuse for having a mental health condition, abuse is extremely rare for me. No, it’s more that people say nothing. Nothing. Like it’s not there. Like a whole big massive thing in my life doesn’t exist and, it seems, as if by association I stop existing too. That’s my stigma. The invisible brick wall around me that feels impenetrable. The silence. My illness is already invisible, trying to fight it against a background of silence, trapped by an invisible wall, well, it’s hard. And I’d tell you if you ever asked…
That’s my stigma.