TW for talk of suicide
Since writing (or being featured in) a number of pieces recently about mental health this week – namely, this one about the challenges I face as a parent living with mental illness, and this one in The Star about the Mystery Room posters in the TTC – I’ve had a number of commenters asking why I’m choosing to “air my dirty laundry.” Why, they wonder, do I want to share such personal information on the internet? Don’t I value my privacy? Or am I just hungry for attention?
What these commenters are really asking is: why do you talk about things as shameful and embarrassing as depression, anxiety and suicide?
What these commenters are really saying is: the things that you have written here has made me uncomfortable, although I can’t quite articulate why.
What these commenters are really wondering is: how can she be mentally ill and look so normal – what separates her from me?
The answer to that last question is: nothing. Nothing separates me from you. I am a person who gets up every morning and goes to work. I have a family, including a son and a husband. I have a lot of amazing friends. I have a social life. I am funny and smart and will talk your ear off about anything from Star Trek to Frida Kahlo to why Amy March is the worst character in the history of ever. I can bake a decent loaf of bread. I like drawing funny pictures of animals wearing flower crowns. I’m a bit of a clothes-horse and I own way too many sundresses, which I can only wear for, like, two months of the year. I do a weird little shimmy-dance whenever I get excited about things.
Of course mental illness affects how I live my life, but I am not my mental illness. Living with depression and anxiety certainly presents its own unique challenges, but those challenges don’t define who I am. I kept reading comments from people who wondered why I’d chosen to have a biological child, given the risk of passing on my messed up genes. And I get what they’re saying, because the last thing I want is for my kid to suffer, but also the implications of that question are pretty fucked up. I mean, they’re basically saying that a life with mental illness isn’t a life worth living. But it is; I promise you that it is. As much as I’ve had moments of vicious anguish and misery, I’ve also had too many wonderful experiences to count. I’ve felt so much joy that my weepy little heart could burst. Living with depression doesn’t mean that I never feel the good things. I do. Even if they’re not what I usually write about, I really do.
If I were given the chance to go back and, knowing everything that I know now, decide whether or not I should be born, I would choose to be alive every damn time.
Talking about mental health makes people uncomfortable. I get that. Plumbing the depths of tangled mess that is the human psyche can seem pretty terrifying; suicide, to anyone who’s never experienced suicidal feelings, seems utterly incomprehensible. We’re programmed to fear and hate suicide, because it goes against everything that we’re supposed to want – to propagate, to survive, to go on even against the toughest odds. We might even feel the same revulsion about suicide as we feel about murder, which makes sense – it’s the same act, really, just turned inward. Which somehow makes it even worse. And then there’s all the guilt that the surviving family members feel – wondering what they could or should have done, trying to quiet the little voice that says, “this is all your fault, you just weren’t enough.”
So we don’t want to talk about it. Which would be fine, except that we really need to talk about it.
The actual symptoms of any mental illness are bad enough, but they’re made much worse by the additional stigma and shame that people feel. If no one talks about this stuff, then it’s so much easier to believe that you’re a total freak who’s going through something that no one else has ever experienced. Part of why I write about mental health is that people often see themselves in my thoughts and feelings – I often receive messages from readers who have experienced this sort of shock of recognition. These people are always so goddamned grateful to know that it’s not just them, that they’re not out there doing it all on their own. So many of us are out there living with the same shit too, and a burden shared is made lighter, and misery loves company, and all those other obnoxious old platitudes.
Talking about mental illness – especially personal stories of mental illness – also makes it easier for people to reach out and get help. It’s one thing to publish a list of crisis lines – which, by the way, I have no problem with and I think is a totally valid response to something like Robin Williams’ suicide; absolutely no shade on the millions of folks acknowledging what happened by sharing that list – and quite another to say, “I’ve been there, I know how it feels, I’ve felt that way too. Let’s talk about the best way to help you feel better.” For many people with mental illness, talking about it is the first step they take to recovering. But they’re not going to talk about it if no one else talks about it, you know?
So I guess that’s why it doesn’t feel like talking about my mental health is tantamount to airing my dirty laundry. Instead, to extend the metaphor, it feels like I’m just hanging my regular old laundry out to dry. And I’m hanging it somewhere visible, like a laundry line strung up between two buildings or something. And everything – absolutely everything – that I wear is on that line. My cute little sundresses are there, as well as my jeans, my shorts, and a variety of tops. But my underwear is also hung up there – even the big old comfy granny panties – and my bras and thongs are there too, waving like flags in the wind. Because we all wear underwear. Everyone knows that people wear underwear. Everyone knows that underwear needs to be washed and dried before you wear it again. So why should it be embarrassing to hang it outside?
Everyone knows that mental illness exists; everyone knows the devastating effect that it can have, both on the people suffering from it and their friends and families. This is not new information – it’s something that we’ve known forever and ever. But the hush-hush way we’ve developed of discussing it and dealing with it clearly aren’t working. So let’s finally start talking about it, because that’s the only chance that we have of beating it.