I met up with one of my oldest and closest friends for lunch on Tuesday.
I hadn’t seen her for about a month, and so was looking forward to having a bit of a chin-wag and a catch up. We spent an hour eating pizza and chatting about life, love, motherhood and everything else, and eventually the subject of this blog came up, and an article I published recently on “why saying I hear voices in woefully inadequate in summing up the horrendous nature of mental illness.”
She said she found it informative and useful to hear what this illness is really all about; that it was great finally having a detailed, in depth description of the symptoms, and how they affect the person suffering them. She said she really appreciated gaining that understanding.
From there were started to discuss the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and this was where, for me, the conversation got really interesting.
It is a subject I have been meaning to write about for a while, because it is obviously really current- and really important to me as a “functioning, capable schizophrenic.” Mental illness is still one of those topics which has stigma surrounding it and a kind of taboo like status. This is what my friend was telling me.
She was bemoaning the fact that the stigma surrounding mental illness still seemed to be pervasive and prevalent, and that she had many experiences where people she had been talking to had reacted badly when the subject had been brought up. She was stating that her experience of stigmas surrounding mental illness had been bad.
However, ironically, I had to disagree- and I told her, as I have told other people:
“I have lived with this illness for twelve years, and I have never experienced stigma from anybody regarding my mental health- Ever.“
I know that I am in the minority, and sometimes I think I must just be massively lucky.
Enough people talk about the stigma surrounding mental health, and have instance after instance which they can bring to mind where they have either been mistreated or discriminated against, because of their illness. People talk about prejudice and misunderstanding, and the shame attached to labels such as mentally ill or schizophrenic.
So I am not, for a single moment, disputing that this stigma exists and still causes a load of distress and anxiety for people.
I am just stating that I must have been lucky enough to miss it- and I wonder if this has something to do with how stubbornly open I am about my diagnosis, and my experiences.
I tell everybody about my mental illness; anybody who asks, I will tell.
I tell work colleagues, friends of friends and anybody else who enquires about it or asks me a question where the answer will inevitably lead onto the topic. I remember telling my whole story to my hairdresser once, as we had time to kill and she had referenced somebody in her family who had suffered depression. I figured, why not engage with her, make it clear that I relate and can understand what she’s talking about, and tell her about what I’ve gone through?
She listened, fascinated, and asked me loads of questions about the different places I’d lived, and about how I’d achieved my recovery. She was sympathetic, interested and really really nice.
At the end of the conversation she said to me “wow, you know, your life sounds so interesting! Mine’s dead boring in comparison..”
Most people nowadays know somebody who has suffered with a mental illness of some kind, or they have been through it themselves; and most people, I have found, are simply dying to talk about this with someone.
When I started my current volunteering position, I explained to my colleagues why I was volunteering and not working. I explained that I’m coming to the end of a long mental illness. Everybody understood, and didn’t treat me any differently because of it.
One of the guys I work with told me that he had left his previous job because of depression, and that he had felt like he was on the edge of a breakdown; he told me he understood how bad it can get.
In the job I had before that, I told all of my colleagues about my illness. One of them had a mum who was very ill with bi-polar, and had been for many years. He really seemed to appreciate the chance to talk to somebody who had some understanding, and I gave him support and advice, and he did the same to me.
Prior to that, I volunteered at a college for performing arts for young people with learning disabilities. There was a massive team of volunteers there, made up of people from all walks of life.
There was one guy I worked with who I remember being a little intimidated by at first as he seemed to know everybody, and was really outgoing and extrovert. We got to know one another after I had been volunteering there for a couple of years, and I’ll never forget what he shared with me the first time we talked about my mental health diagnosis.
(Continued in part 2..)