“The trauma you have just experienced is the third hardest thing a person will ever experience,” stated Nick the counselor as he drives us toward the crisis stabilization unit. Over the course of the next five days, I reflect back on the past three years of my life – the undiagnosed post-partum depression, the autoimmune disease diagnosis that blind-sided me, the anxiety, the learned coping skills to be able to fool everyone that I was fine and strong enough to get through on my own without any help, the marriage that had been reduced to a pile of rubble and the two innocent young children I was left to raise essentially on my own. Then I have a really good laugh at it all when I think, “I work for a behavioral health agency and now I am a consumer of one. THIS should have made it into Alanis Morissette’s song Ironic.” At that point, I knew I would be okay.
On my last night stay at the unit, I am sitting at the dining room table observing the people around me and thinking of the people who had already left the unit. While there were similarities among all of our mental health stories – clinical or post-partum depression, an experience of homelessness, drug use, and abusive / toxic relationships – our life stories were vastly different. We all had recently experienced our own black hole of personal despair, though, on the inside. From that vantage point, we were all exactly the same.
An energetic initiative, Stamp Out Stigma, was developed by the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness (ABHW) and works to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and substance use disorders. Their work increases the volume from a whisper to a conversation on the exchange of ideas on mental health and addiction. This is my conversation.
On occasion, I think back to my last dinner with my fellow consumers at the crisis stabilization unit and wonder where they are today. If I were to bump into, let’s just call him Male-Consumer #1 at a diner and we sat down to have a cup of coffee, what would the fellow patrons think was going on? Male-Consumer #1, when I knew him, hit every stereotypical, outward symptom of having an anxiety disorder. Then add on his disheveled hair and a few missing teeth. Comparatively, on any given day I look reasonably put together with appropriate self-care skills. What is not easily visible is accelerated heartbeat, internal trembling and my hand in my lap picking at the callused cuticle on my finger until it bleeds because now there are too many people in the now busy restaurant. On the inside Male-Consumer #1 and I are exactly the same, but appear vastly different on the outside.
When I tell people about my spring of 2014 and that I spent time in a crisis stabilization unit, I heard responses like “You are pulling my leg” or “No, not you” and suddenly I was aware of the ideas some people have in their head regarding what mental illness looks like. If you do a quick internet search, you will find plenty of articles circulating the internet regarding the stigma of mental illness, but I suspect the people reading those articles are the ones who are already aware of it. Even people who have been successfully treated for mental illness often times don’t want to acknowledge it has been a piece of their life. With that, the stigma is now a double edge sword and mental illness will sink its talons into anyone it can – it has no aspiration to discriminate.
A wise friend recently said to me “The bumpier the road, the more you learn from it”. The past three years have had more bumps than I thought even possible, but the knowledge gained has been exponential. No person can possibly know what it going on inside the head of the person next to them. When I encounter someone, whether they be a client, co-worker, neighbor or stranger, regardless of what the look like on the outside, I try to shift my perspective for a moment, and pause to be curious as to what happened to the person. And I’m heartened that children’s author, Wendy Mass, says in her book, The Candymakers, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Wouldn’t it be incredible if we all learned this perspective as children?
by Paige Riley-Gordon