An old Welsh proverb posits: “Starting the work is two thirds of it”. So let’s make a start.
I have mental health problems and I am ok; I am also very not ok, and I am often suspended in-between. I am in recovery and I help others recover. I suffer and I heal.
My start was with talking. I was silent for 35 years. My past locked me in perpetual fear for my life, my present hemmed with stigma. The stigma in the language I heard in the workplace, on TV, in the news was prevalent, but I wasn’t sure it was affecting me specifically; attack formed the fabric of my life.
I came to adulthood pre-stigmatised, carrying the weight of family abuse, violence experienced as a gay teen in a small mid-Wales town, and a bright intellect that ostracised rather than lent value. I was always different. I knew only judgement.
So when the mental health issues hit – the addiction, depression, anxiety, OCD, self-harm; later Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and an eating disorder - I figured that was just how people experienced the world. Didn’t everyone have a crushing fear of all other humans? Won’t every endeavor result in humiliation and rejection? Doesn’t everything hurt? “We’re all equal in the face of what we’re most afraid of” (Sleater-Kinney), right?
So I wasn’t hearing the language as stigma, I just heard language. The everyday. The norm. It took hitting rock bottom - where I died a thousand times over – and my rebirth (through using Neuroplasticity techniques) to hear the words for what they are: a devaluing of the variety of our human experience. And they hurt; for the first time I could hear their violence.
“Don’t be stupid, what have you got to be depressed about? Think about all you have”
"People like that aren't normal, they're not welcome here"
“She’s been off work for months, she’s useless”
“You’re not going to do anything stupid are you?”
“At least you don’t have kids that need feeding, think how hard it’d be then”
“You’re young, you’ll get over it”
I’ve taken a few winding blows in my time, but casual misunderstanding is like an arrow to the heart, the sharpest pain. How fitting that the word Stigma comes from the Greek meaning ‘a mark made by a pointed instrument’.
So standing up and telling a different story is vital. We can’t understand experience we’ve never had, or have only had stereotyped or skewed accounts of.
"Whatever you need, try writing it down, text it, blog it, sing it, swear it, whisper it, yodel it from above."
How am I still here? What changed? Rock bottom/ misdiagnosis, and therefore an attempt to treat myself/ a place deeper and more silent than rock bottom/ the idea that I may need help/ the idea spoken/ a response/ hope.
I can’t imagine how one kindles hope alone. We are social animals, it’s the most interesting thing about us. We thrive in groups, grow in pairs, love in parallel with every other being. So it’s natural to share, and to ask for help. Help isn’t just for the drowning, it’s also for the drowned.
Whatever you need, try writing it down, text it, blog it, sing it, swear it, whisper it, yodel it from above. No matter what form it takes, to give it air will give it wings; the support, understanding and love you’ll receive is only what you deserve.
And when we get what we need, we find our power. Mary Oliver’s poem reminds me of this daily:
“Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.”
Talking changes what is possible for us. Talking also changes what is possible for others to understand. It takes the keenest will, a hero’s courage, but don’t be discouraged – if someone as broken and lost and incapable of love as I was can start the change by speaking my needs, then so can you.
I still need a lot of help, and I still find it hard to ask for it. It’s not easy, but I make myself do it over and over. It’s a continual new start. I’ve a long way to go, but that’s ok. And if we stand together and gently challenge stigmatising attitudes, we can change the world around us for everyone’s sake.
Let’s stand together, and have a chat. It’s where all the best things start.
If you would like to write a blog post about your experiences of stigma or related issues, email firstname.lastname@example.org