Picture this: One day you wake up with a nagging headache. You’re not generally one to get headaches, so you drink some water and go on with your day. This headache, though, refuses to dissipate. Days go by, followed by weeks and, still, that tiny pebble of a pain weighs on you. You know that everyone gets a headache once in a while, so you don’t ask for help, even though you’ve tried everything you can come up with. Eventually, contrary to your efforts, your head gets heavier and heavier under the weight of this invisible, indestructible aching.
By the time you finally ask someone for some advice, they recommend you take an Advil or two, as if you haven’t already tried that. You do it anyways, hoping this time will be different. After all, if it works for them, it’s got to work for you. Bottle after bottle of ibuprofen goes down the hatch with no relief as that pebble you so resented in the beginning becomes a stone in your brain. You go back to that someone and tell them that the pain relievers haven’t done the job and they say this: “Well, headaches always have a cause, and since you’ve addressed all the possible causes, it must just be in your head. Try not to think about it. Just stop having a headache”.
This is mental illness.
Mental illness has always been seen as a lesser form of suffering, even an invalid one. The continuous struggle for relief, to some, is indicative in itself of there being no real cause. We all instinctually devalue the chronic sadness/anxiety/stress of another because we believe that we know what it’s like. A healthy amount of each is normal and we continue to live relatively productive lives. So why can’t they? We believe that the answer to sadness is just to smile, to anxiety is simply not to worry, and to stress is relaxation. This assumption that we all experience emotion in the same way (and therefore may use the same antidotes) is what has fed the silent killer that is the stigma against mental illness.
I’d love to be able to say that I’ve never subscribed to the stigmatization of my own disorders. I’d love to be able to say that this stigmatization hasn’t become a part of my daily life, but it has. Beginning at the age of ten (the age during which I first started “talk therapy”), I bought in to the idea that any psychological distress can be “beaten” with sheer strength of will. I trained myself, day-in and day-out, to conceal and combat my obsessive thought patterns and panic attacks, alone.
Well, aside from some serious emotional vomiting onto my parents (thanks, Mom & Dad).
There’s only so long, though, that fighting a war against yourself can be enough. And I’d love to say that stigma was fighting against me, but in reality I think it was fighting with me, manipulating my moves. Stigma made me survive off aversion tactics, rather than playing offense, and that is because I was afraid of what the other side was capable of. See, that’s what stigma does. It plays off of our fear of our minds by insinuating that we have nothing to be afraid of, which makes us wonder, “then, why do I feel horrible?” and “what’s so different about me?” It makes me feel that I’m excluded from my own reality. That idea fuels avoidance, and that is what led me down the path to bed-ridden panic attacks. And then, no amount of aversion could keep them away.
No amount of “just smile” or “don’t worry” could stop the fact that even I didn’t fully believe in the validity of my illness. There’s a reason I’ve always stuck strictly to my birth control regimen, but hardly ever feel pressed to take my Zoloft/Wellbutrin, and it’s not because pregnancy is scarier than the possibility of remaining “sick in the head”. It’s because I’ve been conditioned to value one over the other, and place my priorities in the possibilities that society has deemed worthy of offensive action.
As if sex isn’t avoidable, but mental illness is. As if I need protection from pregnancy over depression and anxiety. I know, that’s some serious b.s.
In the end, since going on leave, I’ve had to fully come to terms with the fact that, in large part, my subscription to stigma is what allowed my illness to consume me. I let myself believe that, as many people told me, “it was all in my head” and therefore not real. But it is, as real as a sore muscle or diabetes.
So yes, we may all experience headaches, but we don’t all find relief in the same ways. In fact, some of us feel we never will.
Marisa Wojcikiewicz is a 20 year old, rising junior at Boston University, studying both English and Spanish Language, with prospective tracks in Public Health and Journalism. She’s pretty much the epitome of someone who keeps her options open because, truly, she struggles with making decisions. Especially about what to commit herself to. However, there is one thing that has remained a comforting constant in her life: writing. She soaks up her experiences by imagining how they may become a piece of writing, and is inspired by those who do the same. You can visit her blog here.