Mental illness has always played a part within my life. Whereas most people remember spending their childhood days running around like mad/semi-drunken fools, kicking their friends into the dirt as they ate as much junk-food their grubby baby hands could carry, I remember mine as being far more stressful. Admittedly, I probably ate enough raw sugar to drown a small herd of cows, and kicked my friends so many times that it is a wonder they weren’t permanently crippled, yet it is the style with which I accomplished said tasks that was strange. My behaviour could be described with one word: nervous.
My mother’s stories surrounding the attitudes and behaviours of my siblings and I usually follow a specific pattern; my brother was a kid who deserved more credit than he got, my sister was “tough, big-hearted, and stubborn”, and I, the youngest of the three, was “easy to raise”. The reason for this comment makes that less of a compliment, and more of a case-study.
I was a child who was so terrified of breaking the rules that if I were to break any house rule, I would find a punishment for myself. For example: if I were to swear, I would wash my own mouth out with soap. Why? Because my mother had once told me that this was what happened to her as a child. I would take the punishments she described as having been inflicted upon her, and assume that it had bridged the generational divide like a regal title.
Not only had I a constant fear of parental law, but I was horrifically indecisive. When my Father would ask me to choose (out of 2 places) where I wanted to get coffee, I would take quite some time to decide. Wrapped in abysmal indecision, sweat shining upon my pre-pubescent brow, I would finally plead for him to choose instead. When I talk about these trips now, he laughs. Apparently he had once asked me why I had such a hard time making a choice and I replied, “if we [went] to Macs, the doughnuts at Tim Hortons [would] know and get mad.”
This feeling of dread has remained constant throughout my life in one form or another. I remember staying up most of the night before my first day of grade 9 worrying about what I wanted to major in for University, and thinking that if I didn’t figure it out that night I would fail in life. I was in a constant state of anxiety throughout high school, and oftentimes found my mind obsessing over the ‘what ifs’ of my day-to-day. It was only when I got to University that I realized perhaps this had gone a bit too far.
In 2013, about the time I was diagnosed with ‘General Anxiety Disorder’, an estimated 3 million Canadians (11.6%) aged 18 years or older reported having a mood and/or anxiety disorder (Government of Canada). Although I had always known that having a mental breakdown over what to choose on a menu, or crying for seemingly ‘no reason’ was not normal, it had taken me until I was almost 20 years old to get help.
Mental illness is invisible, and because of this it is highly stigmatized. When someone has a broken limb they are given treatment and compassion. When someone has a ‘broken’ mind they are given the cold shoulder, and told to “calm down”. I will not speak for everyone, but when I am told to “just relax” in the midst of a panic attack, an inner beast awakens (an inner beast that is frequently just two steps away from clawing out the eyes of the well-intentioned speaker). Sadly, people have been left in the dark as to how they can help those experiencing mental illness. It is not necessarily the public’s fault either; our entire culture is based on the “Conceal, Don’t Feel” format of interactions. If someone is able to discover your inner ice-queen, you are seen as already having lost. That is why it is so important to talk about mental illness; if we talk about it, then the mystery is gone.
I encourage you, dear reader, to go from this humble blog post and talk about that which should not be the ‘Dark Lord’ of our society (Voldemort, not Trump). If you are suffering from a mental illness, know that you are not alone. More and more people are coming out of the fold to speak about their own experiences with mental illness, and we are slowly eliminating the stigma associated with getting help. You do not have to to be alone in this. The more we talk about mental illness, the closer we are to sending the Mystery Gang back to unmasking ghosts instead of complacently patting Shaggy on the shoulder and telling him that he should “just stop worrying”.
For information on how to help someone you know who is suffering from mental illness, go here. If you are suffering from a mental illness yourself and do not know where to turn, call 1-866-531-2600 (if you are in Ontario), or find a number that can help you here.