I sat comfortably in one of the waiting area chairs, head down lest I make eye contact one of the other lost souls seeking salvation. Emboldened by boredom and curiosity, I stole a glance around, at the others like me, waiting to walk in, sit down and expose our wounds. I needn’t have been so furtive. They, the faceless strangers, made great effort to bury themselves in magazines, cell phones, and books. Never look up. Never chance an encounter.
On the surface, it’s warm and inviting. Cozy. Paintings, photographs, and sculptures adorn the walls. A sound machine is always playing white noise that I think is supposed to sound like running water. Serenity is what they’ve gone for, and with good reason. We’re all here being treated for mental illness. Anything to keep the crazies calm, right?
At first, I didn’t even realize I was ashamed of being there. I’d been open about battling depression for a few years. I told anyone who would listen how I sometimes struggled. I battled stigma wherever I found it. Here I was, surrounded by people like me, and I was ashamed.
It sounds counter-intuitive. There I was, at the doctor, with an illness, and ashamed of needing to be there. Judging by the apparent lack of eye contact, I wasn’t alone. We’ve all been pressed into believing a lie, that we are less worthy because of the chemicals in our brain.
If I head off to my family doctor, the scenario plays out much differently. People often nod and smile at one another. Strangers may strike up conversation. At the very least, we acknowledge each others presence.
The stigma of mental illness is so pervasive that we voluntarily cloak ourselves in it. Even shielded within what should be a safe space, we hunch our shoulders and look away from our peers. We literally hide away from the very people who understand us, who know how it feels to be us.
I started analyzing my behavior. Why? Because I’m a masochist who needs to find every fault and hammer away at myself for them. That’s why. Don’t you?
Turns out I was modeling shame. From my body language to my tone of voice, I was telling people I was ashamed of being me. I could have shouted from the rooftops, telling people that we shouldn’t be stigmatized for being sick, that our illness just manifests differently. I could say anything at all really, but my body told a different story.
In conversation, I’d tell people I suffered from Major Depression. I’d describe what it was like, how it felt to be deep in the shit. I wrote about it and shared my innermost thoughts freely and without fear. And still, through it all, I was ashamed.
I didn’t know it, or at least I didn’t realize it on a conscious level. I still carried the stigma of mental illness on my shoulder like a sullen belligerent imp. During those conversations, I avoided eye contact, looking squarely over their shoulder or down at the floor. I caught myself changing the tone of my voice, slumping my shoulders, and fidgeting.
It wasn’t always pronounced, but it was there. Sitting on the comfy couch in my therapist’s office, I stare meekly at the floor as I describe each relapse as if I were confessing my sins to a disappointed pastor. I fidget when we discuss the suicidal thoughts and my first instinct is always to lie in a misguided effort at faking normal.
As damaging and counterproductive as that may be, we wage that battle internally all day long. We’ve been conditioned for so long to hide our illnesses, to shade our misery, that even in the presence of someone trained and willing to help, the honesty is difficult. We have been brainwashed so effectively into believing mental illness is a weakness and a character flaw that knowing it isn’t still keeps us feeling that it is.
Stigma follows us everywhere. It’s in our homes and workplaces, schools and houses of worship, hospitals and yes, even mental health clinics. The unfairness of it all isn’t lost on me, but neither is the need to push back against it.
The first item on the list is to stop being ashamed. Pick your chin up, speak with confidence, and know that it can get better. I force myself to look people in the eye. I work hard to keep from fidgeting, and I speak slowly enough that I can control my voice. The next thing? Maybe just smile and nod at the person nearest you in the waiting room.