That’s my stigma

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.

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6 thoughts on “That’s my stigma

  1. sweetchaosp3 says:

    Your words have hit a nerve, I understand the feelings all too well, knowing that if you answer people when they ask how you are honestly they will feel uncomfortable, look uncomfortable and make you feel more crappy than you did before, so in a way I like the fact that they ignore me, it saves the awkwardness and hurt. ❤

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  2. Standard Deviation says:

    I’m not sure it’s all about MH stigma tbh – I think a lot is just social awkwardness or general ‘misfortune stigma’. People tend to behave in the same sort of ways about other chronic illnesses, about bereavement, relationship problems, job loss, financial misfortune, infertility, miscarriage or other challenging ‘personal’ or ‘private’ situations. For some it’s because they’re uncomfortable with their own or others’ emotional responses, and they’d rather simply avoid. Others tie themselves in knots trying to be tactful, they don’t dare ask in case it triggers difficult emotions or causes offence. If they know someone is having a tough time emotionally and likely to be more sensitive than usual, they feel a responsibility not to make them feel worse by being crass, tactless or ‘prying’. And considerate people don’t want to be seen as spouting insensitively on some frivolous topic or raving about their good fortune in case it seems to be minimising your struggles… which eventually reduces the topics available until again, it’s more comfortable to avoid. You’re right – it can become a wall of silence, but it’s not just about MH.

    On the positive side, there are things one can do to break that silence – conversations require two people. Keep in contact with others. Tell them you want contact, that you like it if they text/phone/email/pop in, that although you may not be as buoyant as usual, you’d still like to hear about what they’re up to, that positive distractions are helpful and the attempt will be appreciated.
    You can also start the conversations – it gives others permission to approach subjects which otherwise they’ll avoid out of embarrassment. Sidle up to the subject if you’re cautious of the direct approach and give some signals that you’re willing to get closer and closer to it. Utilise your interpersonal skills and sense of humour,(both of which you have buckets of) to put people at ease, show them that you’re still just you, even if the service isn’t currently running at full capacity.

    Yes, it’d be lovely if everyone would take the initiative and make the running, especially at times like this when they’re actually a lot better resourced than you – but most people are cautious about going out on a limb, and in any social interaction need a little encouragement and a few signals from the other person to give them a steer.

    Pick your people, pick your timing, and give it a try sometime. (If it didn’t make me be a little bit sick in my mouth, I’d even go so far as to utter the phrase ‘reach out’ to someone 😉

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    • kateofwoz says:

      I do think it’s a MH thing to a certain extent. When other colleagues are off with long term illness or a bad accident we get updates, there are cards. Not so for MH. I guess because it’s seen as private in the way gynaecological problems would be. I have reached out to people. It hasn’t worked. I know the my phone is just as capable of making calls as receiving them but it’s not the phone that’s the problem. It’s me. I can’t imagine ringing anyone with nothing to say and that’s the position I’m in…unless I can talk about what’s going on with my MH but largely I can’t as it makes people uncomfortable. I just can’t do it and I don’t understand relationships really. Since the whole BPD thing has come out it’s starting to make more sense and I’ll be learning interpersonal effectiveness when I start DBT so maybe in the future. But not now.

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  3. Standard Deviation says:

    Are you able to phone people to ask them about themselves and their lives as opposed to calling them to tell them about yourself? It shows an interest and can help maintain relationships and a sense of connection until such time as you feel you do have more to say. Obviously there are likely to be some reciprocal questions, but things like talking about your kids/OH can suffice if you don’t feel you want to discuss yourself personally.
    I’m really interested in the DBT – sounds like it’s going to be quite comprehensive. How are you feeling about it?
    xxx

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    • kateofwoz says:

      I promise I do ask others about themselves 🙂 I’m feeling really good today. Yesterday was amazing. I was normal. Properly normal, not buzzing or depressed. We had a family day out and I enjoyed it so much. It was easy to move. I’ve never really noticed before how heavy and stuff I feel. Every movement is effort, like carrying a load, but yesterday I could move! I’ve slept for 2 nights now with no horrors and I feel like hey, am I better now? How did that happen? I am enjoying it and, if the depression returns (as I expect it will), I feel better prepared for it; my resilience tank has been topped up a bit which is great, ready for starting my DBT this week. I’m looking forward to actually, finally, tackling this and having some purpose too.
      Good news all round.
      Hope you’re keeping well x

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  4. Standard Deviation says:

    Oh I’m so glad to hear it! I know what that feeling is like – when suddenly the fog lifts and you feel almost weightless – maybe that’s one reason it’s called ‘depression’. I also understand exactly why you’re cautious, but I really hope this is a corner turned, and though some bad days are inevitable, it doesn’t have to ever go so low again.
    Long live this feeling of empowerment!
    Glad you’re looking forward to the DBT – I hope you’ll let us know how it goes.

    I’m well. Went to a Land Rover show yesterday with Will’s dad, who’s just bought an oldish one. My ex husband and I used to have some for off-roading, so it was a bit of a blast from the past. We went round an off-road course. Will loved it, Will’s dad loved it (and is a very capable off-road driver, with an astonishingly capable vehicle) I used to live it, but I’ve completely lost my nerve – bottled it and watched them the first time round, then reluctantly got in for the next go, but mostly had my eyes shut and was clinging to the grab handle for grim death. Feel like I’m getting old (well, anxious anyway – wish I could sort out this car anxiety thing – it’s a complete PITA for someone who has a lifestyle based around the need to drive).

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