There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of years surrounding eradicating the stigma that envelops mental illness. It’s something that I’ve seen first hand with how my son was hiding his illness from everyone because he was scared and ashamed of what was happening to him that he couldn’t control.
I’ve done lots of watching and reading of some great movements that are striving to help all of us, but youth in particular, not feel that shame and to be able to speak openly. Not just about mental illness and mental health in general but in a more personal way.
The campaign “Not Myself Today” ( https://www.notmyselftoday.ca/ ) is a more adult geared campaign that looks to end the stigma attached with mental health issues in the workplace. A great idea, and one that I speak openly about supporting at my own workplace. But… and here’s the catch… do I speak about my own personal struggles? Nope. Only a very few select people at work know that I lost my son to suicide. None know the daily fight I have with my own depression or PTSD or the thoughts that rampage through my mind that I am almost too ashamed to even admit to myself. Only my direct supervisor knows that I am seeing therapists and dealing with depression – and this only because I worried for my job security as I felt myself slipping in my ability to function a few months back.
I had plans to go to the gym yesterday during my work day and when I was getting ready to go I realized that I had forgotten to pack my long-sleeved workout shirt. Anyone who has known me for years knows that I tend to wear as little as possible on top when I work out. Spaghetti straps all the way – I get really hot and sweat, a lot, when I work out. So for me to be focused on wearing a long-sleeved top… well that in itself is unlike me. That I almost didn’t go to the gym because of this speaks volumes about how I feel about the scars on my arms. It’s not that I think scars are hideous or disfiguring; I really am not that concerned about the actual look of them. It’s what they represent and how people will automatically make assumptions and even label me based solely on the physical manifestations of my struggle with mental illness.
My arms are always covered at work to hide them. When I shop for work clothes my clothing choices are limited now not by what feels good or fits, but by what the clothing covers – or what it doesn’t. I add long sleeved sweaters to every outfit that has short sleeves to ensure that people that I work with don’t see the scars. So that they won’t ask questions that I don’t want to answer honestly. How do you explain to someone that you cut yourself to deal with the pain and feelings caused by depression. THAT doesn’t sound “normal”… I’m in a position of authority at work. I’m the manager; what kind of a manager can I be if I am so incapable of self-control as to do THAT to myself. These are the thoughts that go through my mind. The mind of someone who knows better and who talks the talk about reducing the shame of living with mental illness. Ironic.
I have foregone Physiotherapy, Acupuncture, Massage and Chiropractic care because I couldn’t let the practitioner see my cuts. I alter my activities and choices based on hiding something that I’m ashamed of that I shouldn’t be.
Even with all of the talk of ridding our society of stigma, it’s still there. Fully and completely and thriving. It’s not just that I imagine that this is the reaction… it is. I see the looks and have heard the comments from people who notice the scars and the cuts. Friends who don’t know the truth who ask if my kittens got me when they see one of the cuts poking out of a sleeve. The next sentence is “they must have claws like knives – it almost looks like cuts.. but who would be crazy enough to do that” and they laugh. And I laugh too because how do you say that yes, they are cuts, and yes, you are crazy enough to do it to yourself. The sad truth is that I balance the options of either being truthful and not hiding the scars and cuts and maybe, just maybe, educating people… or keeping them covered and not having to face the stigma. I wonder if by me hiding them I am contributing to the perception going on and on. The perception that someone who has signs of mental illness is viewed as weak and incapable… categorized as being not able to handle stressors…as someone who is to be wary of and handled with a ten foot pole.
My inner Self says to wear the short sleeves and know that whatever someone else may think or view me as is wrong…The truth is that my cutting doesn’t tell a story in scars that I’m weak… it’s screams “Fuck you mental illness, I’m still here”. That’s not something to be ashamed of. That’s a truth to be proud of.