I have always kept my doubts to myself, afraid of the judgments and abuse that one typically experiences after sharing that she has a mental disorder. But our country ended 2013 with a rallying cry to start a “national conversation” about mental illness and—as a woman who struggles with mental illness—I can no longer remain silent.
Amid the rise in public interest toward the excruciating and silent struggles of the mentally ill, I have been troubled by two predominating attitudes and worry that conversation along these two veins will prove to be fruitless.
The first, and most common, is a dismissive approach asserting that mental illness is not to be talked about. In my experience, many who take this approach adamantly refuse to believe that mental illness exists in the first place. The second and more mainstream attitude is the attitude of wholeheartedly accepting mental illness as part of a person’s identity.
The first dismissive attitude posits that "I am nothing but a body. I accept only physical maladies as real, treatable, or normal." The second, more popular attitude of embracing tends to claim that "I do not just have a sickness; I am a sickness. It is part of my innate self."
In Eminem and Rihanna’s new hit song “Monster,” we hear a refrain about the pitfalls of embracing mental illness as a part of one’s identityÚ "I'm friends with the monster that's under my bed / Get along with the voices inside of my head". Embracing mental illness has become part of the emo culture, where cutting is normalized as an edgy way to be different and the heartache caused by mental illness becomes romanticized.
But there is a middle ground that should be at the center of our national discussion. It’s not helpful to ignore mental illness because it is not physically apparent, but we should also avoid defining those who suffer from mental illness by their illness. Imagine that you have a broken arm. The pain is part of you because it's your bone, your body. The same pain is an all-too-real part of your life that you must deal with. It would be absurd to deny that the arm is broken or that it needs to be healed. On the other hand, it would also be absurd to embrace the fractures in your bone as "who you are." There’s no shame in suffering, and living with it is different than being defined by it. It hurts, and you don't want to talk about it constantly, but you don't need to hide it either. You did not wish it upon yourself. You can bandage it up and let it heal.
Honest conversation about mental illness is desperately needed. But this can only happen if understanding, empathy, and a balanced perspective are the focal points. We must never forget that the person with a monster under her bed is just as much a person as you are. It's the monster we need to fight.
Photo by Stefany Alves