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Mental Health: Facing my self-stigma

I’ve got something to tell you.

My mother has suffered with mental health issues since I was born. I have never known Mum completely free from her bipolar/depression/schizophrenia/psychosis. You see, she has been diagnosed and re-diagnosed more times than I care to remember. We have spent Christmases visiting mental health units and childhoods fighting stigma in the playground. After seeing her sectioned seven times and enduring long hospital stays, I’m well in tune with the mental health protocol in the UK. I make it my business to talk about it, everywhere and anywhere I can. But none of this prepared me for my own self-stigma when I was diagnosed with depression. I find that a lot more difficult to talk about. It’s something I’ve kept hidden and secret.

It feels uncomfortable for me to even write that. I was meant to be the strong one. I’ve taken pride in looking after Mum. That was my role. It started when I was at university in my first year: my first time living away from home but more importantly this was the first time I’d lived away from Mum. My decision to move away was a difficult one, she was in hospital when I left and asked me not to go. Promising to visit every weekend, I’d left to start out on my own. I remember lying in bed one morning and feeling like I was frozen solid. I tried to move but couldn’t. I wanted to cry but it just wouldn’t come out. I think JK Rowling got it right in her description of the dementors in Harry Potter. Depression makes you feel as if you’ll never be cheerful again. It didn’t seem as though there was a way out. I knew what was happening the minute I felt it – this was different. My first thoughts were panic: could this be the beginning of me becoming ill like mum?

I walked around the supermarket trying not to make eye contact with anyone, shaking as I handed the money over to the cashier, frightened of my own thoughts. I’d run through everything that had happened in the day trying to figure out if I’d done anything to give myself away or if I’d upset anyone. I didn’t feel like I could trust any of my feelings. Was I dangerous? Was I a bad person? I’d sit in my lectures in a cold sweat, the room spinning because of my panic. Every little thing seemed big and every decision scary.

Everything else in my life was going really well. I had lots of new friends, a loving boyfriend and I was really enjoying living in the city. But what gives? I began agonising over my usual routine, trying to be normal in the hope that I would start to feel better. It didn’t happen. From my experience with my mum I knew it was best to go see the doctor. She prescribed anti-depressants: stigma drugs. My concerns were right – I was suffering from anxiety and depression.

The only people I spoke to about it properly were my dad and brother. I couldn’t hide it from them – they knew me too well not to realise that I wasn’t myself. Between the three of us we had long phone calls most days. After a few months I was back to being myself again. The drugs had worked and the counsel from my family had helped me through.

That was 10 years ago. Now from time to time these feelings resurface. I’m not afraid of them anymore, I just get myself down to a doctor as soon as I can. I’ve never really spoken about it to my friends. Not properly. Not publically. But I’ve realised something: by not speaking about it I’m adding to the stigma. I’ve hidden something that I’d always spoken out about for other people, but I’d cowered when it came to myself. I don’t want to hide it anymore. I’m still scared that I might suffer something more serious somewhere down the line.

But I’m not ashamed because if I don’t tell you now, it will be more difficult to come to you if I really need to.

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