Awareness Isn’t Enough

Thirteen years after my diagnosis, I told a friend about my OCD for the first time.

I was sitting on a bus with some new friends on a teen tour, listening to a fellow trip participant as he described what growing up with Asperger’s was like for him. I uttered the words “I have OCD” for the first time then, half expecting a sudden thunderclap or bolt of lightning to remind me that such things were not meant to be discussed.

Instead, I was listened to and respected. It was strange how this made me feel more included than anything else on the trip, especially when I’d believed throughout my childhood that admitting to my diagnosis meant never having a real friend.

It was my first step to trying to be more open about my life, which I’d always avoided out of fear and shame - the powerful stigma surrounding mental illness. I didn’t know anyone else who lived with mental illness, and even though some members of my family told me they were anxious about things too, it was never quite the same.

I was reminded of this moment at a seminar earlier in the week focused on destigmatizing mental health. The presenter began by sharing her story before asking if anyone had questions. I was surprised at how many people opened up and were able to ask about themselves and the people in their lives who they wanted to help. It was so encouraging to see how people could talk openly without any shame, whether they expressed their concern over a friend’s well-being or shared their experience of going to therapy or taking medication.

A personal connection seems to be the key that opens so many doors. It works better than anything else I’ve seen, and it’s why I share my story here and with my friends and family. It’s even how I got close with my best friend - after we met at a Pokemon game tournament, I knew we had common interests, but it wasn’t until they took out a bottle of anxiety medication at dinner and offered an explanation without batting an eyelash that we truly began to bond.

These moments are what I think of when Mental Health Awareness Month rolls around each May. The word “awareness” trips me up - as someone who was diagnosed before I can even remember, I’ve never known a life without OCD. By default, it’s something I’ve always been aware of. But there’s a big difference, for me, between being aware of something and actually doing something about it.

As a child, my only awareness of any kind of mental illness besides OCD came from lists in textbooks, with words like bipolar and depression and autism thrown around with no deeper meaning beyond what I needed to study for a test. It wasn’t until I met people with these and other conditions that I began to really understand what sorts of things people lived with, and even though I couldn’t understand the intricacies of what was going on in their minds, I began to have sympathy for situations where they behaved in atypical ways that others considered weird or annoying. And even with my own experience, I was still surprised to hear the different ways mental illness manifested in different people. Even with awareness of my own life, there was - and is - still so much I didn’t know.

I could list facts about mental illness for school, but I couldn’t say why it was so hard for a friend with social anxiety to go to an event she wanted to go to. I knew from school that autism and Asperger’s were often talked about in the same context, but I didn’t understand why some of my friends felt strongly that they wanted to identify as one or the other, and were offended when people got it wrong. In other words, I knew mental illness existed, but aside from living my own life, I wasn’t doing anything to get rid of the stigma that has felt so oppressive for so many years.

Learning the facts about brain chemistry and acknowledging that mental illness exists are definitely important steps, but expressing this knowledge through compassion really changes things. Listening to a friend in need, supporting someone in even the simplest way, and sharing stories of mental illness can make an enormous difference towards breaking down the stigma.

I think my session this week would have gone completely differently if the presenter hadn’t shared her story about depression. My own life would be a lot more isolated if not for the people who shared their stories with me and helped me feel safe to open up. Hopefully, this blog can be another step in the long but very worthy journey towards destigmatizing mental illness.

This year, during Mental Health Awareness Month, catch up on the basics. Get an idea of what mental illness is, and maybe even learn some facts or statistics. And I also hope you’ll find a way to learn more stories, whether here at No Shame On U or with your friends, family, co-workers, or acquaintances. Consider sharing your experience as either a person living with mental illness or an ally - you never know who you’ll inspire to make a change, and who they’ll inspire in turn.

It is in this way, rather than simply being aware, that we can truly begin to smash the stigma and create a world where no one’s lived experiences are out of bounds for discussion.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.