I picture the people who perpetuate the stigma against mental health as some incongruous union of overly proper, posh billionaires whose monocles have tea sets of their own and as the kind of people I’d see at Walmart at 3 am, the people whose hair is oddly greasy and panicked shifting eyes see me, with my own oddly greasy hair and darting eyes, and think “well at least I’m not like her. The stigma against talking about mental health feels as if it’s some relic of a time when every waking moment was a demonstration of how strong and capable and not poisoned by our work in the factory we were. It also feels like a characteristic of a group that is afraid to acknowledge that they can be poor and scared and tired and still have more things they need to deal with, and those things you can’t even see.
I wonder what would happen if we assigned the taboo we’re using for mental health to something else. What if it was cats?
Imagine you have a friend, and you’ve started noticing they’re acting a little strange. Not that long ago, they were spending a lot of time out of the house, and you heard they’d been at some kind of shelter. Of course, you’re not going to ask about that. It’s just not done. However, lately you’ve noticed there’s something a little off about them, and you think your concern has some justification. They seem to have suddenly and completely changed their diet. Where once they used to subsist mostly off of pasta, now it appears they’ve added a significant amount of cheap canned tuna fish to the menu. However, you know your friend hates tuna. You know they’re terrified of mercury poisoning because they have been since they were a kid and unfortunately learned about mercury poisoning in the same day they learned there was an entire planet nearby with the same name. Yesterday, you and your friends went swimming, and you noted something that was almost enough to get you to talk to your friend: all across their back were thin scratches. “Oh no, is this some kind of weird fetishy shit?” you think you yourself. You decide not to talk to your friend. The tuna and the clear evidence of an unwholesome sex life and also the strange amount of money they spend on lint rollers has scared you, and you decide the friendship has come to an end. You see your friend once more: they’re staring at their phone and making little cooing noises. You shake your head and turn your back on them.
I tell so many people about my cat. I have not yet had a student go through my class without knowing what my cat looks like, what her favorite color is, and what her hobbies and aspirations are. I inflict my cat on anyone who will listen because she is cute and nice and small, and it is ok to talk about her.
I wonder if I’m allowed to do something similar with my own mental health. My cat’s name is Moira, and she is a small gray tabby, and I’m afraid of crowds because they force me to acknowledge that every single person in that crowd represents a person of as much depth of life as me, and that knowledge that every person is just appearing there for a tiny window in a life that exists independent of me is terrifying.
Moira’s favorite color is maroon because it was the color of the electric blanket I bought to keep her warm through winter in my old apartment, and now I think she expects all maroon things to be electrically warm, and I also fall through awful waves of depression that come either entirely without cause or can be brought on by thinking too hard about a few different, difficult parts of my life, and these bouts of feeling nothing or nothing tinged with sadness leaves me wanting to lie on the floor waiting for the universe to fall inward. Moira enjoys running around the apartment, getting high on the nip, and finding caves to sleep in and perches to loom from; she aspired to finding a place that is inaccessible to all so she might preside over her kingdom unopposed. Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m depressed or anxious or if this is just my personality because it has been like this for so long, and I’ve only recently been learning what I actually like to do.
I recognize how intensely personal issues of mental health are to a lot of people. I don’t think it’s really appropriate to just walk up to someone at a bus stop and say “I have issues trusting people actually like me because my understanding of my self-worth has been warped by years of depression and self-hate.” However, I do think it’s weird that it can feel wrong to talk about our mental health with the same people we talk about our lives and fears and goals and total fuck ups. I don’t like that I’ve been taught that I can say to a close friend “wowzers, that essay I sent out got rejected by every magazine I sent it to,” but I can’t say “wowzers, that rejection of a piece of work I thought was good has confirmed for me that I am a piece of trash, and my anxieties were correct in arguing that I should just jump down a hole and fall off of existence.”
It’s so weird that there are things that we just don’t talk about even as those things are what we really could benefit from talking about. Maybe I just want more people to compare anxieties with, or maybe I just want one more subject I can talk about with some level of expertise because I am a professional-grade mental nightmare.