10 Years, 10 Lessons: A Journey to Fight the Stigma Associated with Mental Illness

As I have this text edit box open, I’m feeling some serious nostalgia. I’m thrown back to the days of Xanga (2002-2008? Man, I’m starting to feel old), when my friends and I would post vague song lyrics to send our angst out into the void of the World Wide Web. We were convinced that no one truly knew or understood us, because clearly no one had ever been a teenager before. And so we spoke in vagueness and metaphors. And we skirted around the real things that were bothering us.

This medium was perfect for me. I was dealing with so many demons that I didn’t want to face. I could write my angsty, uninformative posts without ever admitting the truth: I am depressed. I think about suicide all the time.

I felt uncomfortable saying these thoughts out loud because I was certain that I was supposed to be ashamed of them. Because no one around me talked about mental illness, I figured I must have been the only one facing these issues. [I’ll concede here that we had a small unit on depression in high school health class, where we watched a video featuring mental health experts Third Eye Blind talking about their song “Jumper.” But I don’t remember discussing how people with mental illness, when treated properly, can live fulfilling lives. So why would anyone want to admit to struggling with mental illness?]

Of course, keeping it inside didn’t work for me. During middle school and high school, my life was a cyclical comic tragedy of something ridiculous happening to me and me responding poorly. And so life got harder and harder until I hit a breaking point (or two or three) and realized that I needed help. In retrospect, I’d like to believe that I would have gotten help sooner had I heard anyone talking about mental illness with any sort of nuance. And so now I’m trying to add nuance to the conversation.

2017 marks ten years since the first time that I was hospitalized for depression and suicidal ideation. It truly feels like a lifetime ago (though that may be true for everyone re: high school). In the hospital and the years afterward, I’ve learned so much about myself, mental health, and how other people perceive mental illness. Recently, as an exercise in self-reflection, I’ve started writing 10 Years, 10 Lessons. In each post, I’ll share way too much information about myself in hope of resonating with someone else. Hopefully if you’ve experienced something similar, you’ll chime in, either as a comment or a direct message.

Here’s a list of background information about me that may be helpful to know before moving forward:

  1. There is a long history of depression in my family.
  2. I grew up with tendencies toward depression and neuroses that only revealed themselves as potentially damaging in retrospect.
  3. Starting in 2004, I was stalked by a classmate, which resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  4. In high school, I was hospitalized twice when my undertreated PTSD combined with my worsening depression (once in 2007, once in 2008).
  5. In 2014, I experienced a resurgence of my PTSD when my stalker harassed me for the first time in years.

Each of these things was once difficult for me to confess. Each item was once emotionally charged, and I felt ashamed to admit that my mental health was less than stellar. The more I talk about it, though, the more neutral and less shameful this list feels. Now it’s a list of things I just assume people know about me and, as far as I can tell, no one thinks any less of me for it. Hopefully, as more people talk about their experiences, we will paint a more complete, less stigmatized picture of mental illness. Less stigma means properly treated mental illness, which hopefully means fewer lives lost to suicide. No one should be stuck feeling like they want to die and that there’s nothing they can do.

I know I’m not great at writing (except for scientific writing — I’m awesome at that — offer me a job when I finish grad school, please), so please bear with me as I try to find my voice.

I’ll see you soon for lesson #1!

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