Speaking out against Stigma

stigmaBy: Danielle Michaud, Project HEAL Social Media Intern

I have suffered from anxiety, panic, and OCD since I was a young child, later developing anorexia nervosa and depression. I have received all levels of treatment, many times, over the past several years. As a college undergraduate, I majored in psychology and am currently studying clinical social work with hopes of later serving in the mental health field.  Needless to say, at least on a cerebral level, I have been no stranger to “joining the discussion” on mental illness, even encouraging others to seek help and to be vocal about sharing their stories. So why was I so silent?

My family and some of my friends knew about my struggles to an extent, but I increasingly went to lengths to prevent anyone else from finding out. On some level, I am sure that some people knew, partly because it always felt like the elephant in the room, and my worn physical appearance likely suggested something was amiss. (Although, as I write this, I must note a) looking “too thin” can be attributed to a large number of factors, and b) eating disorders, more often than not, are NOT obvious, just the way other illnesses go painfully unchecked, invisible). I had spent many years in heavy denial of my eating disorder. I knew somewhere, deep down, that yes, I had a problem, but it was not that severe – which is just another variation of the myth of not feeling validated as “sick enough.”

After a few stints in treatment, I still grappled with my belief in that misconception, but the realization had sunk in enough to which I had accepted that I indeed had an eating disorder. But over time, I grew increasingly secretive about the nature of my anorexia. I do think who one chooses to tell – and when – depends on his or her readiness; it is a personal decision. However, I had smothered my eating disorder in a cloak of silence, even failing to tell people that I was in the hospital during my last admission. In retrospect, I now recognize that having shared this information would have strengthened my support network and given people the chance to reach out to me.

Truthfully, I was deeply ashamed. Not only did I feel self-perceived inferiority for living with mental illness (a notion I applied to only myself), but I also experienced a sense of defeat from having been in treatment repeatedly. I did not necessarily feel that I was incapable of recovery, as impossible as life without an eating disorder often seemed. I was motivated to push forward in my journey despite the bumps in the road – but I enormously feared judgment from others for having been in and out of facilities so many times (“again?”). I had internalized the stigma so much that I put up a thick wall, separating me from many of the people I cared about. In doing so, I subconsciously reinforced my beliefs, which in turn created a vicious cycle of perpetuation.

Over the fall of the last year, my existing anxiety and depression snowballed, ostensibly tag-teaming each other as I spiraled down, paralyzed by terror and a permeating sense of hopelessness. The silver lining of this situation was that it finally led me to emerge from my shell and start talking. What did I have to lose? I am grateful that most people were much kinder and receptive than I would have ever anticipated. The bottom line is that I had absolutely nothing to feel ashamed of. Mental illnesses are just as real, serious, and potentially life-threatening as major physical diseases. Stigma still does exist, and people do not always understand the true depths of mental illness beyond “sadness” (i.e. depression) or “a diet gone too far” (i.e. eating disorder). However, there is hope. We can take action, continuing to chip away at this issue by raising awareness by speaking up.