May is Mental Health Awareness Month — particularly noteworthy given the numerous news stories that we read online or see on the evening news. We have had our emotions stretched from fear to anger to sadness as we’ve heard about Aurora, Newtown, or any number of stories involving untimely deaths and heartache.
I’d like to offer you a different face of mental illness. One in which a person diagnosed with what is considered to be a serious and persistent mental illness is able to lead a fairly normal life. I offer my face to represent all of those who are truly underrepresented when we speak of those with mental illness.
I was diagnosed 10 years ago with major depressive disorder. I was hospitalized twice with suicidal ideation during those 10 years. I know all too well what life on a psych ward is all about. I endured my first three-day hold after realizing I couldn’t hold it all together and I couldn’t see how I would make it to the next day. Even the joys of raising my children no longer were enough to sustain me — though I believe they kept me from reaching bottom sooner.
Psych wards are, in a word, stagnant. I imagine it has the feel of being incarcerated, though I understand the need for simplicity when one is trying to recover. There’s also nothing more enlightening than having all of your belongings taken from you — all the things that identify you as you — only to hear the night nurse say to a colleague, “What difference does it make if we lock the bathrooms and take all their stuff? If someone really wants to off themselves, they’ll find a way.”
I suspect we’ve come a long way since that time, nearly 10 years ago. I’d like to hope we have. We see images of “crazy” people doing “crazy” things on the news. We think that all people with mental illness look and act the same. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The image I present of mental illness is of a successful employee — one who loves to laugh and make others laugh. A woman who is extremely proud to have raised her three sons to be the young men they are today. A person who approaches life with as much energy as she can muster, enjoys traveling, and prides herself on her eclectic nature. A human being with feelings, involved in friend and family relationships, who has goals for her life and has dreams, as we all do.
Perhaps you’re just one of those people who’s “depressed” but doesn’t really have serious depression, you may think. I can assure you that several psychiatrists have all come to the same conclusion and that I, like so many others, will contend with my mental illness for a lifetime.
How is that possible, you ask? The answer is the same, I think, for any individual who is in recovery from mental illness. It’s a matter of balance. Some people just need to add therapy to keep their life balance. Others need to use medications. And some may need to have both. My answer, at least at this point in my life, appears to be a combination of medication and therapy. I have no illusions about the fact that I will need medication for the remainder of my life.
So here’s the kicker in all of this: I’m not the only one. There are many of us out there — those of us diagnosed with a mental illness — who are in and out of your every day lives. You can’t automatically look at a person and claim to know whether they have a mental illness or not. But we are here. And I’ll be honest, it would be nice to see the positive side of mental illness in the news for a change.
Life with a mental illness certainly isn’t easy, but there are many stories out there of amazing people doing amazing things despite the mental illness label; or even doing the amazing thing of simply living a “normal” life.
Mental Health Awareness Month: A wonderful opportunity to celebrate the lives of those who, whether we see it or not, struggle longer and work harder to simply live a normal life. It is only when we recognize all of the faces of mental illness, that we can begin to further reduce the stigma.
Kristina Roegiers, of Mounds View, is a human-resources director for Tasks Unlimited in Minneapolis.