My sister has a laugh that echoes through our entire house. She is an incredible artist. She can tell you about almost every character in the Marvel universe, and then go on to explain every single storyline that character has been involved in. She loves music, and she’s great with kids. She read me the same story every night for a year while our father was deployed, making up a brand new voice for every character each night. She has a large tattoo on her right ankle, one that covers up the scars from where she cut herself. You see, my sister suffers from severe bipolar disorder. Her moods severely change, seemingly for no reason. She gets irrationally angry, insanely happy, and crushingly sad, and she has no control over it. Growing up, there were times when she was so angry or when she was so sad, and no one knew what was causing it. When my parents first took her to a doctor, they couldn’t diagnose BPD in children, so she came back with what sounded more like alphabet soup than an answer: ADD, ADHD, anything they could think of to explain the mood swings. She went days without sleeping. Sometimes, she would be so manic that she became reckless. In these times, she usually ended up hurt in some way. When she left for college, we all thought it would be okay. We thought she had outgrown it. But one night, her roommates called to tell us that she had been cutting herself. They brought her home and her legs were covered in scars, a map of the hurt and illness she had internalized all her life. We all asked ourselves how we hadn’t noticed her falling apart, how this could have slipped by unseen.
Mental illness is, unfortunately, something that almost everyone has experience with. There are so many different kinds, and no one case is exactly like any other. And, even more unfortunately, most people don’t understand it, and some are afraid of it. Mental illness stigma is a problem that everyone with a mental illness will eventually face. People who suffer from depression will inevitably meet someone who thinks they just need to cheer up and stop being selfish. People who hear voices are going to come across someone who thinks they’re crazy. People fear what they don’t understand, and the truth is, if they haven’t suffered from some sort of mental illness themselves, they don’t really understand. It’s hard to look someone who hasn’t dealt with depression in the eyes and explain to him or her that it’s not a matter of you NOT being happy, but that it’s actually a mix of biological and environmental factors that make it nearly impossible for you to be happy. They don’t get to choose how they feel–the chemicals in their brains do that for them.
The stigma that surrounds mental illness has got to stop. It’s one reason why so many people who suffer from mental illness choose to suffer in silence rather than talk to someone about what’s happening to them. It’s why some of those people choose to commit suicide, leaving their friends and families wondering how they got to such a desperate place without anyone knowing. If we throw out all of the preconceived notions we have of mental illness and of the people affected by it, we open the door for the conversations about mental illness that are so crucial for its treatment. But if we keep criminalizing those who suffer from it, we’ll forever keep the door closed and those people in the dark. Mental illness stigma is simply another way to discriminate against those who think a little differently, or whose bodies work a little differently than ours might.
My sister is afraid of whales, but she still goes swimming in the ocean. She regularly quotes obscure YouTube videos. She can explain art in a way that makes anything look beautiful, and she is so much more than the imbalance of the chemicals in her brain. She is more than the medicines she takes and the doctors she sees. She’s the one who makes jokes when I’m crying, who would do anything to make me smile. She’s the girl who bravely looks mental illness in the face every day and tells it that it won’t beat her. She’s someone who could have given up, who could have quit a long time ago. But she’s someone who never did. She’s a fighter. She’s someone I look up to, because the things in her medical history aren’t what make her who she is. It’s a part of her, but it will never define her. And if you can’t look past her or anyone else’s diagnosis, then maybe it isn’t them who’s “sick” after all..
Image via Shutterstock