When I was in my early 20s, I stood in front of a friend’s mirror and saw myself looking in on myself like I was my own Droste effect of being a picture within a picture. I watched myself cry, and I heard someone tell me I was never wanted. The voice in my head was making its way out of mouth and I continued to repeat phrases that made sense to me but no one else. I could feel the emotions of the objects around me. I was being overwhelmed by pain and beauty. I was seeing words and knew I could touch sound. I was having a psychotic break but didn’t know it.
When my ex-partner took me to the emergency room, I remember being asked if I was Wiccan. A doctor asked me this while I was in the middle of talking too fast and with little logic. What? What is Wiccan? I didn’t think I was that. Instead of being treated like someone who was suffering from mental illness, I was assumed to be someone with an obscure religion, practicing witchcraft. Instead of taking me seriously and treating me with compassion, the first reaction this doctor had was to make a snide remark that implied I had created this mess for myself because of a pagan belief system. Somehow that seemed more plausible than that I might be suffering from a PTSD episode.
After replying no to the Wiccan question and others about drug use, they finally asked about my mental health history. They contacted my psychiatrist and psychologist, and I was released to go home after promising I wasn’t going to harm myself. By that point I had started to calm down, and I would have said anything to get the hell out of there. I was embarrassed and confused. I felt like a loser and a freak. I had only been in therapy for a few years, but it seemed like nothing was working. When was I going to be fixed? When was I going to be normal?
I have since learned that I was never broken, and normal is a bullshit construct that no one can live up to. If you are struggling to feel mentally well, you are not alone. And you need love and support, not stigma.
Before the pandemic started, nearly 1 in every 5 Americans had experienced a mental illness; however, more than half of those people did not seek help because they were afraid of judgement, loss of employment, or loss of friends and family. Irina Gonzalez, a writer and editor based in Florida, says growing up as a Latina added an extra layer of stigma when talking about mental health. “I remember early on hearing about some distant aunt who was only described as ‘la loca’ (the crazy one). She didn’t even have a name, just an identity as the crazy member of the family. This is really common in my culture.” She also said that it wasn’t okay to “air dirty laundry” and talk about problems that needed attention. Instead Gonzalez struggled with anxiety and alcohol abuse and wished her family and culture embraced mental health instead of seeing it as something to avoid.
I and so many others use drugs and alcohol to cope with what we can’t explain or what we try to hide. There is an element of cognitive dissonance that happens between feeling that something is wrong and not being taken seriously. We are hurting but are told to suck it up and not talk about it.
Ashley, a mother of three from Vermont, has been dealing with anxiety and panic attacks since she was a child. As an adult she still struggles to find the healthiest ways to take care of herself. “I learned at a young age that it wasn’t normal to be overwhelmed and anxious,” she told Scary Mommy. “The overwhelming message was to toughen up and learn to deal with it. The social stigma of depression is that people who suffer with it are downers. They make people in society uncomfortable. Teenage girls, in particular, are supposed to be pretty, bubbly, happy and lighthearted. I was not fulfilling my duty as the sweet, happy-go-lucky, all-American girl.” She spent years trying to get better or “fixed” before insurance coverage ran out for therapy sessions.
Our insurance systems in this country are disgusting at best. Before having gender affirming surgery, which was also life-saving surgery, I had to prove to my insurance and surgeon that I was suffering and that the surgery would help with dysphoria, a common occurrence for transgender folks. To cover the expense of my surgery, I cashed out an expensive life insurance policy to which I could no longer afford to pay monthly premiums after a divorce. I paid $12,000 out of pocket for my medical bills and planned on insurance covering a significant portion of that bill. Despite having been approved for the procedure, I wasn’t reimbursed any money because my plan only covered up to $2,500 after my deductible was met.
Moreover, when I applied for a cheaper life insurance plan to replace the one I’d given up, I was denied a policy because of my mental health history and addiction — despite having been sober for 2 years at the time, and despite being as emotionally stable as I had ever been. I was getting the necessary medical care to support my mental health. My physical health was excellent. My medications and therapists had been consistent for years. I was clean. I was doing everything “right.” None of it matters.
I was considered too high risk and wasn’t allowed to pay more for the “death by suicide” clause. My history of suicide ideation, my mental break, and my alcohol abuse left stains that society deems unwashable. One system after another makes it hard for those of us who struggle with mental illness to feel worth the time and “risk” to be taken care of.
Lonnie, based in New York, explained that her husband refused to seek mental health services for his debilitating anxiety and irrational rage because he didn’t want to lose his job. “This caused irreparable harm to not only him, but to our family unit as well,” she told Scary Mommy. “Only after he completely separated from the Army did he feel free to seek the therapy and medication he needed.”
Every gender, profession, age group, race, and socioeconomic background is susceptible to mental illness. And despite the millions of people who suffer, mental illness is often kept hidden, not taken seriously, or manifests in ways that others simply shove aside as laziness, weakness, or incompetence. Instead of finding compassion, patience, and support, those of us who struggle with mental illness often find ourselves inflicted by stigma — both from society and ourselves. The negative attitudes and treatment toward people who struggle with mental illness create a cycle of silence, shame, and unhelpful self-judgment. We need to stop normalizing these patterns.
I have been receiving mental health services since I was 18. I have a team of therapists, a compact but effective toolbox of coping skills and medications, and years of painful and enlightening lessons that have torn me apart and stitched me back together. I have several diagnoses and those have been helpful to get the medication and education I need to feel better if not good. But what helps me the most is to acknowledge what I have endured. I was a victim of childhood abuse. I have had to manage my way out of toxic relationships. My brain re-wired itself to the point of self-protection and self-harm. I have learned not to blame myself for my abuse, which means I can’t blame myself for my mental illness that grew out of that trauma.
We need to stop blaming each other too. Fewer stigmas around mental illness would encourage folks to reach out and get the help they need and deserve. People need more grace, not more reasons to believe they are failing or unworthy.
Don’t believe the lies. You are not broken. You are not a failure. You are worthy and loved.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers 24/7, 365 days of the year confidential and free services in Spanish and English. 1-800-662-HELP (4357).