Living with Stigma

It’s not easy living with an invisible illness. The misconceptions and ignorance surrounding mental health can be astounding, though I am rarely the subject of someone’s ignorance and don’t always personally feel the stigma attached to mental illness. If anything, I feel the opposite, where my anxiety disorder is minimized because “everyone worries.” I try to be very open about my experience, in the interest of educating others and creating a safe space around me where people are not ashamed to talk about their own battles.

I have an anxiety disorder. For the most part, you’d never know. I am a grade 4 teacher, a yoga teacher, a world traveller, and am very social and outgoing. I love running school assemblies and doing presentations, and never shy away from a challenge. That being said, sometimes by brain misfires in response to stressors, making them seem bigger than they are. When this happens, I can become uncertain or scared or  tearful. Occasionally, if it’s really bad, I have panic attacks and suddenly everyday tasks can feel impossible, and I become paralyzed with fear.  Luckily, it rarely gets to this point, largely because I make my wellness a priority every day. Yoga has been instrumental in regulating my anxiety, and CBT helped me be able to rationalize my fears when they arise. Eating well, sleeping well, and exercising also help.  I am also on a low-dose anti-anxiety medication.  All of these things work together to manage my illness, though I feel strongly it is the self-reflection and yoga that do the most.

This week someone made a comment about me being too talkative and annoying them, and it was ‘probably because I didn’t take my medication’, because there was ‘a huge difference right after I did’. The person in question knew I had an anxiety disorder, but doesn’t know much about me or my experience other than that.

I can’t even express how many things were wrong with those statements.

Firstly, that’s not how medication works. At least not mine. Last year, when I experienced a week of everyday panic attacks, I started taking Celexa, which is an SSRI. It can be used to help alleviate anxiety by keeping a steady level of serotonin (the happy hormone) in my body, as it is believed that anxiety is caused by a chemical deficiency. Interestingly, medical trials show that a placebo is just as effective in treating anxiety as this particular medication, and I’m not even sure myself how much it contributes to my wellness over the other things I do, but I take such a low dose that it’s not hurting me either way.

Secondly, it’s a ridiculous oversimplication of medication to assume that my behaviour will change from one minute to the next based on when I take my pill. I could skip it for days with no noticeable ill-effects.  The benefits of this particular drug take time to take effect, and also to wear off.  If I’m talkative at breakfast and maybe not after, maybe I’ve just moved on to other things in my mind.

And most upsettingly, it is the fact that because I have an anxiety disorder, anything I say or do should be attributed to my mental illness.  It’s akin to women being accused of having their periods whenever they are in a bad mood. It’s offensive and ignorant. Can there be a connection between by behaviour and my illness? Yes. Does it drive everything I do? Not in the least. And being talkative, social, and positive are more likely to be signs of mental wellness- anxiety is not exactly known for it’s upbeat conversation. Interestingly, when I referenced taking a pill that day, I had actually taken an Advil. So how it was ‘so obvious’ that it calmed me down is a bit confusing. As far as I know, Advil doesn’t work in that way, though if it did we’d have a lot more blissed-out people in the world based on it’s sales.

It’s no wonder that people who struggle with mental illness are so slow to get help or resistant to taking medication. The stigma around it is overwhelmingly negative. No one would question a diabetic’s need or use of insulin. An illness is an illness. The more I have experiences like this, the more I want to share it, in the hope of helping people understand the complexities of mental health.

I do have anxiety, but I am certainly not defined by it.

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