A Story and a Confession
TW: self harm, suicide, depression, forced institutionalization, abuse.
(author’s note: I have to be honest, I wrote the first draft of this blog post several weeks ago but had so much trouble bringing myself to proofread it that I’ve just been sitting on it ever since. Writing this proved to be much more triggering for me than I thought it would be, so I ended up being unable to proofread it. Then for some reason my brain insisted that I couldn’t write any more articles until I published this one. Thanks to the help of friends who offered to proofread it for me and make minor edits, I think I’m finally ready. My only request is that my facebook friends avoid tagging me if they decide to share it. There are people on my friends list who I don’t want to see this.)
I first became depressed in 6th-7th grade. I began to face a lot of harassment at school and I realized I was queer but had nobody to talk to about it. And, you know, junior high just really sucks. My sister who is four years older than me also became abusive (physically and verbally). I hardly ever talk about it because I feel like it could have been much worse, and it didn’t last long. She eventually apologized for what she did to me. After a few years we started to get along better and I forgave her. It doesn’t undo what happened though. She had an abusive boyfriend and she sort of took it out on me, although I didn’t know that was happening at the time. It’s not an excuse but it’s an explanation for why she only abused me for one school year. At some point my sister tried to kill herself and was institutionalized and put on medication. As far as I know she wanted to be put on anti-depressants, she wanted to get help (she probably didn’t want to be stuck in a hospital halfway across the state; maybe she did. I don’t know). At the time it felt like my sister was being punished for being depressed.
My mother seemed angry with her. Maybe she was just scared; I don’t know how she felt, but I remember the things she said. She blamed my sister for being weak and over emotional. She was against my sister being on anti-depressants and told me that they turn people into emotionless zombies. She mocked my sister for being institutionalized and faulted her for getting herself into that situation (not for the abuse she faced). I was a kid and it felt like I had to pick a side. Remember, my sister had been abusing me. I hated my sister. So I believed what my mom said. It was easy for me to blame my sister and hate her for being mentally ill. All while I was confining myself in my room hurting myself and wanting to die. I was afraid to tell anyone what I was going through.
My sister got better. I didn’t. Well, I did get better but I’m still suffering from depression (except when it decides to take a break but it always comes back). I hid it from my family because I thought my mother would love me less. I believed that she would be disappointed in me if I ever sought help or admitted to what was going on. I also believed it’d be shameful for me to see a therapist or to take medication. I believed that anti-depressants were poison and that they would make me feel horrible and crush my personality and creativity or whatever and it took me years to unlearn that. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that anti-depressants are not the worst thing in the world and that they could help me. That it’d be ok for me to seek treatment and that it wouldn’t be a punishment. But at the time I not only hated myself because I had depression, I hated myself for having depression. By age thirteen I had already learned that depression was my own fault and that suffering from mental illness made me a bad person. So to deal with that, I brushed it off as a teenage phase.
I never saw my mom’s response as abnormal or heartless because I saw the same attitude everywhere. People blame mentally ill people for their own conditions all the time. They act like it’s a weakness to ask for help. They make it seem like it’s immoral to take medication. Stigma against mental illness is incredibly easy to internalize and spread. Just look at how easy it was for me to take up the same attitude as those around me, despite the fact that I was suffering from depression myself. I was hypocritical and it was cruel. I mocked my sister for what she went through. Because it’s what I was taught. There’s other reasons like the fact I hated her for making my life even more unbearable. Because it was a way to cope with the guilt of my sister being locked up when I was just as screwed up as she was. Because by age thirteen I had already learned to see mental illness as something deserving of punishment, but not something deserving of treatment. I was angry, scared, and confused about what I was supposed to be feeling in a situation like that.
What I didn’t feel was remorse about my own suicidal tendencies. My sister attempting suicide didn’t shock me “back to reality” and make me not want to kill myself. Instead, the reaction to her suicide attempt and her subsequent treatment gave me insight into how bad it would be if I was found out. It gave me the impression that treatment was worse than what I was already going through. That it was better to suffer in silence than face the shame of seeking help. Part of it is how the mental health field is structured, but another factor is how people respond to mental illness.
This is why I react so intensely when someone insinuates that it’s shameful to have a mental illness or disorder and to get treatment for it. I had to fight so hard to let myself seek help. Getting to that point required me to remind myself over and over that there is nothing shameful about needing help and that medication isn’t going to poison me. It was incredibly easy for me to absorb a lot of ableist ideas about mental illness and treatment, but much more difficult for me to unlearn it.