Chandelier II, a sculpture from my art show, “The Strength in Our Scars”
Two years ago I came out: not with a revelation about my sexuality, rather an announcement about my mental health. At the point I came forward, I had been struggling with major depressive disorder for roughly a year, but things had recently gotten bad. Cutting myself bad. Fantasizing about suicide bad. In need of hospitalization bad. At that point I needed to let loose the secret I had so closely guarded.
I don’t want to abscond with the language developed by the LGBT community and simply coopt the description of the brave announcement of their true selves, but I see useful overlap in the two experiences. It is the overlap of stigmatization and fear of consequences in both processes that leads me to respectfully borrow the term.
As much support as mental illness sufferers may get from friends and family, mainstream society routinely “others” mental illness. You need look no further than the recently re-aired Modern Family Halloween episode, AwesomeLand for an example. In AwesomeLand, one of the show’s main families decorates their house as an insane asylum, complete with patients in straight jackets or chained to beds. A neighbor is offended by the decorations, to which her husband explains, “she spent six months in a cuckoo farm in Nevada. Sorry, she gets mad when I say that. It was Utah.” Mental illness, particularly cases extreme enough to require hospitalization, is a punch line. Mental illness is a Halloween costume. Mental illness is something the mainstream, thankfully, does not have.
Hold too tight, a sculpture from my art show, “The Strength in Our Scars”
For a country where 6.7% of the population experiences a major depressive episode in a year and 1 in 5 adults annually deal with some form of mental illness it seems mental illness should be discussed in an honest manner far more frequently. As someone who was afraid to tell her story of struggles with mental illness, I suspect some of this may be due to fear of professional or personal fallout. While it’s true that the American’s with Disability Act makes it illegal to discriminate against an employee with mental illness, practice does not necessarily follow the law. I’ve had a friend fired from a job when his anxiety disorder got in the way of productivity. I have another friend, who though she bravely discusses her struggles with bipolar disorder with close friends, will not tell her colleagues for fear of losing her job as a teacher.
It was these fears of stigmatization, misunderstanding, and concern over future job prospects that kept me from discussing my experience with major depressive disorder for far too long. I knew that the mainstream characterized those with mental illness as “crazy” or “weak”. I worried about word traveling to future employers that I would be an unpredictable hire due to my disorder. It took for my disease to become debilitating, when I felt like I had nothing else to lose, before speaking up.
In my own coming out story I shared things in stages. First I admitted that I was dealing with depression, and had been for too long to handle. I posted a note to Facebook about my struggle, which received a few comments and a grand total of 4 “likes”. The appropriateness of Facebook as a platform for conveying complex experiences aside, the public reaction was less than reassuring. But, people who also struggled with mental illness reached out to me personally to share their stories and the experiences were beautiful.
Mixed in with the affirming interactions to my depression were a few great misunderstandings. More trying responses included someone trying to convince me that depression didn’t exist, proffered “miracle” cures of motivational seminars, and a suggestion that my atheism may have played a role in my condition. It wasn’t easy, nor was it entirely positive, but letting my secret out into the world felt freeing. The same relief would later come when I shared that I had been hospitalized twice for my disorder, but that admission was not – and is not – without a continued concern of judgment. I’ll dedicate a whole post to a (i.e., my) true experience of psychiatric hospitalization later this month.
Chandelier I, a sculpture from my art show, “The Strength in Our Scars”
Now that I am in a stable place, I do what I can to normalize mental illness. I’ve shared my story in two local art shows, On Waking and The Strength in our Scars. I volunteer with the National Alliance of Mental Illness in Syracuse. I walk in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Walks. I am that insufferable person who calls out stigmatization and interrupts strangers maligning those with mental illness. I try to live my life as someone who is “out”.
As a Biology Ph.D. candidate, Liz Droge-Young studies the incredibly promiscuous red flour beetle. When not watching beetles mate, she covers the latest science news on campus for Syracuse University’s College of Arts & Sciences communication department. She is also a mental health advocate, a voracious consumer of movies, and a lover of cheese.