As I think about Mental Illness Awareness Week, I cannot help but look back on my own experiences. It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I truly became aware of mental illness, when my parents approached me about my behaviors and the worries that I seemed to constantly be struggling with. Because my behaviors had become intrusive to my daily life, they were concerned. It was that summer that I chose to start therapy to hopefully get more control over my fears and obsessions.
As I began therapy I was adamant that no one find out about my struggles. Growing up in an extremely small town, I knew how “news” like this traveled. You told one person and somehow, someway, everyone eventually found out.
It was not that people couldn’t be trusted; I am sure I could have confided in some people and it would have stayed between us. Yet, I did not tell anyone. Why? Why was I in such a state of refusal to tell people that I was in therapy and had been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression? Mental illness wasn’t something that was talked about. It wasn’t a unit we covered in school and it wasn’t something that you talked about with your friends.
Mental illness was something that you only heard of in movies and often times made fun of with your friends. Those “crazy” people, psychiatric wards, those things were so easy to talk about callously because we had never truly experienced it. I didn’t want anyone finding out about my mental illness because, up to that point in my life, it was something to make fun of. I was ashamed because I felt as if everyone would judge me if they found out.
It was exhausting having to put on a front every single day at school so that I could be sure that no one found out, and it was exhausting having to battle my obsessions and compulsions every single day. I became a pro at making up lies as to why I washed my hands so often and why I ALWAYS had sanitizer with me. I dealt with the odd looks as the smell of the sanitizer I was using would waft down the hallway and when I would use barriers to open doors and to pump the ketchup in the lunch line, afraid of how many people had touched those things and the germs that were there.
It was around my junior year of high school when I had one of those “change your life” moments. I connected with someone who also dealt with mental illness in their everyday life. This person fought it every single day and was still able to have a job, a husband and three daughters — all things that I had given up on hoping to have for myself. This person opened my eyes to the fact that I could have all of those things, that mental illness was nothing to be ashamed of, and that it was something that I could win.
Through the help of this person and my family, I was able to overcome my feeling of being ashamed and eventually take control of my mental illness. To me, Mental Illness Awareness Week means letting those who struggle know that it is NOT something to be ashamed of, it is NOT something to hide, and it IS something that you can fight — you can win and you can conquer.
Mental Illness Awareness Week is a time when we can spread the word that there is hope, that people are loved and that mental illness is NOT something to be scared of. It is my greatest wish to be just one piece of the movement that will help break the mental health stigma and to give hope to others who have fought the same struggles that I have my entire life.
Mental Illness Awareness Week is a chance for everyone to make a difference. To me, that is what this week is all about.