Strange Stigmas

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.

Broken leg and concussion got nothing on my bad coping mechanisms and depression

I wonder what would happen if we assigned the taboo we’re using for mental health to something else. What if it was cats?

I would put a picture of my kitty here, but that sort of thing just isn’t done in polite society

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.

And she loves burrowing in blankets as long as the blanket can be both above her and act as a little floor for her delicate feets.

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.

10 Replies to “Strange Stigmas”

  1. I’ve thought deeply about ways to justify my stupid decision to get an armadillo tattooed on my shoulder years ago. The best I can come up with is that he and I both wear a shell; they are made differently, but shells, none the less. We both wear our shells to protect our vulnerable selves. His leather protects his tummy. My sarcasm, scowl, and “I’m going to kick your ass” attitude protect my insecurities.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. While I don’t suffer from chronic depression or anxiety, I’ve gone through some dark battles with depression in the past. I tried my best to not let anyone close to me know how deeply I was suffering because I like my privacy and I was just embarrassed that I was letting life get to me. Embarrassed that I didn’t feel as happy as everyone else seemed. And, of course, I didn’t want to bother anyone with my issues.

    It’s great that you’re taking steps to open up these conversations and playing a part in normalizing it. I can’t imagine anyone but you weaving random bits about their cat into a conversation about depression. You’ve got a unique voice to contribute. As for the magazines, they’re going to be sorry.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. There’s definitely that built-in difficulty with reaching out when you’re depressed. The stigma against talking about it was only something I considered after I came to the conclusion that maybe I should talk to people. I’m also pretty private, and letting people see all my vulnerable spots wasn’t appealing.

      Thank you! Cats and a vague sense of disappointment at how much no magazine may ever publish me are cornerstones of my writing lately


  3. I find it hard to talk about my own mental health even to the people close to me.
    They had to find out the hard way (life and death situation). And just recently I found out that my coping mechanism or at least I seem to think so was to shut people out and not let anyone in. As much as people offer to help, the ones that know, I still find it hard to open up to them because I am afraid of judgement or in some instances afraid of misunderstanding and in the end I don’t say anything at all.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I had kind of the same thing. I only recently realized that most of my friends at the time didn’t know when I was wildly depressed and actively deteriorating. Some of them found out about it through my posts here. It’s so hard to reach out, and it’s also hard to revisit those old shitty feelings to explain why they existed to people who didn’t see them. Basically, it’s all bad and I wish we could just take naps in the day and be content all the time

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Preach. It’s even weirder that if you tell other people you have virtually any other illness (from life-threatening to uncontrollable hiccups) the reaction is either “that sucks”, or “what can I do to help?”. But the moment you admit to struggling with mental illness, there’s this weird shift in perception that can go from “no, you don’t” to “I can’t talk to you know because you’re gonna shatter into pieces if I say the wrong thing” with a stop at “I need to personally manage/fix that for you”, depending on who the person you just talked about is.

    I’ll be honest, I wish I could just tell people I suffer from crippling bouts of depression and for them to just tell me “that sucks”. It would be the best reaction for me, and ease my burden, because then we could all move on and I could feel okay with telling them I’m just not feeling well right now without feeling like I have to make something up.

    I really hope we get there some day, when mental illness is seem like any other illness and we’re neither seen like making it up for attention nor ticking time bombs.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Adding to the reactions people have to learning you have some issue with mental health: some variant of “I don’t think that’s real.” Gotta love knowing someone for years and then realizing they somehow don’t think depression is real.

      Yeah, I definitely wish it were easier on both ends: telling people and reaching out is hard, and there’s not a lot being done on the other end to make it easier.

      Most of what we can do is hope and try to talk loudly about it when we feel up to talking about it at all.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s even more infuriating when they DO think it’s real… on other people. Not you, for some reason. People are incredibly weird when it comes to mental health. I have to admit talking about my own is always hard, especially because I want people to treat it as something normal. “Dam, that’s rough” is a perfectly fine reaction for me, but it’s hard to explain that to people.

        There’s so much work to be done, I hope all of us who are willing to talk about mental health issues help advance some concepts.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh I love the single-case denial: “I know all these other people have the exact same symptoms you do, and I know your therapist prescribed the same medication those other people take, but are you really, really sure this is you? I can’t see it.”

        I think any voice that can help–even a tiny bit–to demystify mental health can help, even if that voice is just complaining on the internet about having a hard time existing.

        Liked by 1 person

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