Trigger Warning: Discussion of mental illness, stigma, and reference to hospitalization.
I do not know how long I have been living with mental illness, but I know it was there before I learned anything about the topic. By the time my anxiety and depression grew larger than my body, I had learned not to talk about it. My illnesses loomed over me, growing less and less private and concealable by the day, and yet they still remained mostly unacknowledged. I disappeared from school for a month into the complex system of psychiatric hospitalization. I asked a couple of friends to visit me, but I knew they wouldn’t come. When I returned to school, my silence and self-isolation continued, but slowly, very slowly, I started to heal.
Now, over two years later, I talk about my experiences with mental illness loudly and often. However, I do not believe that stigma is something you can simply overcome. It is deeply entrenched in our society and silences many of us quite effectively. It was only after I emerged from the worst of it, after I got a therapist I trusted and began to realize that self-care isn’t optional, that I was able to start talking about it. Even now, I only tell people about my anxiety on days it barely affects me, and I only tell people about my depression when I feel far away from it.
People with mental illness are expected to be ashamed and to conceal the ways that we struggle. We are expected to apologize for our illness. Our culture tells us that we are an inconvenience, and that needing accommodations or trigger warnings is burdensome. When we do express our needs, our experiences are often minimized or dismissed entirely. I often find myself in situations that are uncomfortable or triggering, like discussions of dieting, self-harm, or suicide. More often than not, I feel too self-conscious to voice my discomfort or to excuse myself because I do not want to appear rude or overly sensitive.
I try to have the same openness about my mental health as I do about my queerness, and more and more often, I feel able to. I want to move through this world unashamed and unapologetic. During the time I was closeted about my orientation, and later about my mental illness, my self-worth and overall well-being were negatively impacted. Both “closets” are stifling, and while they are very different, my queerness and my mental illness are both parts of my identity that have greatly shaped me. Fighting stigma includes working to release the shame and secrecy we have learned so well; it includes making noise.
In the words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In this case, the master’s tool is silence, and our stories are our resistance.