This invisible illness doesn’t discriminate. But some people do.
When I was 10, I hid in my room looking up symptoms of depression.
The events leading up to that are too lengthy to share. But my teachers knew something was amiss. My friends knew something wasn’t right. Somewhere deep down, I had known for a long time I wasn’t okay. I hadn’t been okay for a long time.
That depression symptoms printout stayed crumpled and folded amongst my notebooks for a while before they were found. The discovery went down about as poorly as you could imagine.
“You’re 10! What do you know about depression? How dare you think you’re suffering from real problems. I’m the one suffering from real depression.”
I didn’t bother fishing the shredded remains of the printout from out of the rubbish bin.
Don’t you think I’m trying to “get over it”?
“He jests at scars that never felt a wound” — Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet
Looking back, that was the first time I felt the sharp slap of the shame and stigma surrounding mental illnesses.
Perhaps society overlooks mental illnesses because it’s easy to ignore the invisible. Is it really suffering if you can’t see the wounds? Is the pain really that bad if you see no blood?
In all that time battling my own mind since then, I’ve heard it all:
“But you’ve got so much going for you! You can’t be depressed.”
“Why don’t you just, you know, not do it (commit suicide)?”
“I don’t think you’re depressed. I don’t think depression even exists.”
“Mind over matter, just get over it.”
Thankfully I’ve had more encouragement than not. I count myself lucky to have good friends in my corner, people who didn’t need to know what I was struggling with to understand I needed their help and patience.
It would take almost 20 years, 5 therapists, 4 misdiagnoses, a year of wrong medication, one hospital stay and countless hours of research before I finally figured out what was wrong with me. And every single day has been an ugly fight — it was just one you couldn’t quite see.
Mental illness doesn’t give a crap who you are
“I’m my own biggest enemy
Yeah, all my empathy’s a disaster
Feeling something like a scaly thing
Wrapped too tightly ‘round my own master”
— Halsey, I hate everybody
Even the rich and famous aren’t immune. The likes of Dwayne Johnson, Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, Stephen Fry, and Beyonce have started to open up about their mental health struggles.
Mental illness really doesn’t discriminate.
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It didn’t matter that I was 10 years old. And it certainly doesn’t care that I’m now almost 30. I battled it when I was successful, and I battled it when I wasn’t. I battled it while healthy, and I’m still battling it while sick (with leukemia).
See, when you say you have cancer, people are instantly horrified for you. They kinda understand it. They see it when they show up at your hospital bed and you’re pale, bald, attached to an IV and moving as quickly as a slug. Your cancer diagnosis is a visceral reminder of suffering and the suffocating reminder of one’s mortality. They can see it’s difficult, they know it’s scary, and they want to be there for you.
But when you show up at a cafe, wearing that cute summer dress, no one can tell it took you three hours to get ready because it took you two hours to get out of bed. There’s no sign in how you’ve tied up your hair, that you’ve spent the night researching how to tie nooses.
What doesn’t kill you makes you… Stronger?
This resilience warcry (or occasional song lyric) is one we all know (it actually originated from Nietzsche). But most of the time, what doesn’t kill you really just chips away at your sanity.
In a culture of mental illness stigma and social media boasting, this line turns into an instruction manual for: ‘shove it down and smile for the grams’.
We can’t turn our backs on mental health struggles, then turn around shocked when something happens. If we truly want to make a difference, we need to make help, resources and support available to everyone.
You can help by simply listening without judgement. Empathy can help break through the heavy brick wall that is stigma. Talking about your struggles with no feelings of shame is one of the most validating and liberating human experiences a person can have.
If someone you know is having a hard time — no matter who they are or what their lives look like from the outside — tell them it’s okay to talk about not being okay (and mean it).
And if you’re the one having a hard time, I’m telling you with all my heart: it’s okay to not be okay. Come, let’s talk about it, I’m ready to listen.