The Outside Trickles In
I try as hard as I can to advocate for an end to the stigma against mental health. I try to be open about the fact that I have taken medicine for years and I believe medicine can be a valuable tool to help people live with a mental health condition. But sometimes, the stigma manages to slip through my guarded defenses and make me question things I believe and try to teach.
A couple of nights ago, I was at a friend’s apartment for game night. As our small group played Catan, we started getting silly - nicknaming the different tiles, rolling the dice in increasingly funny ways, and more. I don’t usually let myself get this silly around other people because I can sometimes get carried away or make people feel like I’ve been “too much.” And then it happened. I don’t remember exactly what it was that caused arguably my closest friend in the group to ask me if I’d taken my medicine.
It felt like someone poured a bucket of icy water over me. The silliness and smiles were instantly gone, even though the others carried on like nothing had happened. But I couldn’t help myself. “What did you just say to me?” I blurted out in the same tone as if someone had called me hideously ugly or disgusting in some way.
My friend was surprised - and even more so when I told her I’d interpreted her remark as an insult. She said she thought I might be having a hard time with something in my life (I honestly don’t even remember what we’d been talking about amidst the silliness of the game) and said that sometimes, when she or her husband forget to take their medication, these thoughts become more prevalent. She saw it as helping, not hurting.
But I saw one thing, and one thing only: I wasn’t good enough. I had displayed some sort of symptom that was abnormal. The next thoughts followed the pattern they have for years: I displayed, openly, that I was not normal. People like normal people. Therefore, people won’t like me or want to be my friend.
I knew this thought pattern from CBT. I knew how it worked and what I was supposed to do to combat it, just as I had when a dog scratched my skin open earlier in the day and I briefly remembered my worries from last week. But this was different. Somehow, I had failed. And all of that came from one simple offhand remark about mental health medicine.
Sitting at a table with friends, I felt the need to be reassured that they weren’t spending time with me because I trade them good pokemon in Pokemon Go or help them with chores and favors. I needed to be told - explicitly and multiple times - that I was invited to this group gathering because they liked me as a person.
“I like how you get passionate about things, even if I don’t understand it,” one person said. “I like hearing about your cosplays even if I’ve never done it before,” said another. My friend who made the remark said she appreciated when I asked her for feedback about a horse’s name in a new Tolkien fanfiction story I’m writing. It was reassuring, but still somehow I felt the remark about the medicine getting under my skin.
It struck me as we continued to play the game - my friends enjoying themselves, as I stayed brooding - that a few minutes earlier, a friend of mine who was allergic to cats like I am was petting our host’s cat as another cat brushed against my leg. When he asked if I remembered to take an antihistamine, I was unashamed to say I had. Why was this so different?
I felt like a hypocrite for going against what I usually believe. My first reaction was self-hatred and thinking no one liked me, rather than believing in myself and knowing that my friends liked me for who I am, medicine and all.
I didn’t question myself about the allergy medication because I knew that didn’t influence who I was, because it was common, and because people still liked me even though I had allergies, and could make accommodations (like putting the cats in a different room) for my comfort.
Mental health shouldn’t be any different. As I’ve learned after my worst crisis, real friends will stick by my side even if I’m the least normal version of myself (and, as my best friend always says, normal is just a setting on the washing machine). People can make simple accommodations like not asking why I’m not eating something I’m uncomfortable with. And it changes how I express myself, but I don’t think the entirety of who I am as a person comes from mental illness. Not to mention mental illness is more common than most people know, thanks to the prevalence of stigma.
I don’t usually fall prey to stigma. I try to fight it on the front lines, offering my experiences as support for others. But this experience made me realize that it still lurks inside me. As someone who is part of society, I grew up learning beliefs that were - and remain - prevalent. I’ve done my best to encourage friends to live their best lives, with or without medication, but I couldn’t see past the stigma when it was my own sanity in question.
In the past, when I’ve heard something like what my friend said to me, I withdraw. I don’t let myself trust this friend as much as I did before. And I trust myself even less. But now, I’m setting a new challenge: to love myself, medicine and all. The silly moments and the tough ones. The times I wax poetic about Tolkien and the times I worry about a scratch on my arm. It’s hard to do with the internalized stigma, but my fight against OCD has also made me incredibly stubborn in sticking to my goals. I’m not going to give up. And I decided to start that very night, no matter how uncertain I felt.
Shyly, I pulled up a picture on my phone. “This is the fabric for my new elf dress,” I explained. My friends smiled, and commented on the color. I couldn’t have been happier to be wrong.
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.