Stigma... But not the kind you're thinking of.
I experience mental health stigma most days.
I’m berated for my weakness when I’m exhausted after another sleepless night.
I’m ridiculed because my chronic tiredness sends me to bed at 10pm most of the time.
I’m told to “snap out of it” when I can feel myself falling into the darkest parts of my mind.
When I’m most desperate for an understanding ear and open arms, I’m greeted with a sneer.
When I’m laid low under the weight of the depression that has been an unwelcome guest in my life for nearly a decade; I’m called pathetic and crazy.
Once the pressure eases and the exhaustion recedes, I’m reminded that I’m not really strong enough to meet life face on.
Perhaps I should just give up, give people a break from my neediness.
The voice that repeats these things is loud and stubborn and I can’t get away from it.
The accusatory voice is my own.
I spend my life fighting the stigma of mental illness in the church and in wider society, but perhaps the place I have experienced the most stigma, is in my own mind.
I cannot recall feeling as worthless and guilty because I had an asthma attack at work. It was unpleasant, yes, but it didn’t leave me wondering if I was capable of doing my job.
When it was a panic attack however, within moments I had convinced myself that I would get the sack because of my incompetence. Everything I have worked so hard for would come crashing down around me because I was clearly mentally unstable – my fiancé would leave me unable to cope with my madness and I would not be able to continue work or be a valuable member of society.
Unsurprisingly, these thoughts did little to ease my panic.
What I feel above all, is hypocritical.
I am not practising what I preach.
I am all too aware that I would never to speak to someone else the way I speak to myself.
The disdain and disappointment is reserved for my ears only.
Much of the advice surrounding depression revolves around the idea of self-care. Of nurturing the mind in the same way that one might nurture the flu-ridden body with box sets and kingsize tissues. The problem is, all too often people suffering with depression don’t feel able to provide themselves with the care they so desperately need.
We will work ourselves into the ground, just so that we can keep our heads above water; punish our bodies to make up for the equilibrium our minds lack.
There is a better way.
In all honesty, it’s a way which is harder too. It involves that little bit of fight, the reserve that we cling onto just in case all else fails.
It is, as it says in Philippians “Being transformed by the renewing of our minds.”
In truth of course, it is far harder than it sounds. It involves holding the thoughts that ensnare us up to the light. It kind of reminds me of the bit in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone where the Devil’s Snare begins to tangle itself around Harry and his friends and they don’t loosen their grip until the light forces them to shrivel and retreat, leaving them free.
When we hold our darkest and most painful thoughts up to the light – their power begins to recede.
Light, if we let it, transforms.
If, for example, I hold the thought: “I’m weak because I’m easily tired and have to go to bed early” to the light its power is easily stripped away.
Of course someone who doesn’t sleep is going to be tired; this is not indicative of weakness. Going to bed early is actually a sensible decision designed to make the best of a difficult and exhausting situation.
When you think about it, self-stigma makes about as much sense as any stigma… that is… it doesn’t make much sense!
We all have an internal dialogue, those thoughts which may berate us for scoffing that last biscuit or sigh inwardly at another train delay.
We can rarely help the thoughts we have, but we can hold them up to the light and not allow them to dictate our worth or wellness.