The Stigma of Mental Illness

These days I tend to be pretty open about what's wrong with me, but there was a time when I would happily lie through my teeth any time anyone asked what my meds were for, what the doctor visit was for, why the dog.

I used to tell people that Zeus was a seizure alert dog. Not because he wasn't a service dog, but I was so scared of admitting what was wrong with me and seeing the reactions that people had to me, that I would rather lie than have them know the truth. When you say something like seizures, or blood sugar, or even ptsd and anxiety these days.. people smile and nod and go 'ooooh' and that's that. But that's not why I have Zeus, and that's not the truth of what he's there for.

Now sometimes he's here for ptsd and anxiety, that is true, so eventually when ptsd and anxiety became an 'acceptable' disability (in as much as disabilities are accepted), I began to tell people he was for anxiety. It was easier and people left me alone. But still I was lying, and hiding and not telling the truth. It all changed when I had a public psychotic episode at a convention.

I was in a panic, begging them not to let 'her' near my artwork. Her was a person who had harmed me so badly that I was certain when I caught a glimpse of her earlier at the convention that she would vandalize my paintings. That fear grew unchecked in me until I physically SAW her walk up to my panels and start examining my art. And so I begged everyone around me to stop her, to get her away, that she was going to harm my work.

Except she wasn't there.

It was the first time many of them had experienced a psychotic episode, and it was life changing for me. You see, I am a psychotic. This means that I have trouble with reality. I see things that aren't there, and it makes things difficult to function. But all my life i had been taught that 'psychotic' was 'psycho'. It was serial killer, it was violence, it was cruelty, it was crazed murderers. I, like most of society, had been educated through movies on a mental illness that literally did not mean what the movies claimed it did. But in that moment, when I was in tears and shaking and clinging to zeus and crying so hard I couldn't see... that's when everyone around me saw what psychotic actually means.

They saw a vulnerable, scared woman who couldn't tell that her worst fear wasn't real, and who was trying to hide behind a pint sized poodle and was begging for help. For the first time people KNEW what was wrong, and acted to help me. They were compassionate, they were gentle and kind. And later on panels, they did not treat me like a pariah, they didn't cast me out and shun me. They cared.

It was so life changing, that I began to really look at what my illness was, and why I was so scared of admitting why I needed zeus and what was wrong. I learned that Psychotic does not define a violent person, it's literally a break in how someone perceives reality. I learned that Psychopath, while sounding familiar, was NOT Psychotic and that a Psychopath or a Sociopath is what the movies were depicting. People who do not have empathy, or even the ability to feel emotion. Who are dead inside that way and who often do cruel things just for a reaction, or just because they can, or because it is the fastest, most logical path to their goal and as they feel no remorse or guilt or any sort of emotional connection, they simply carry it out.

It is so very different from Psychotic that it really made me realize how badly I was misinformed just by public perception and what's thrown out there in movies and books, and insults. "My psycho ex girlfriend" "they were crazy"  "You have to be psychotic to do something so horrible!" .... none of that is based in fact. And as I realized that, my shame in my illness began to fade.

Now that I've stepped out and been honest, told people up front what is wrong, I see the stigma constantly. The girl looking to rent a room who was told up front that I'm psychotic, who panicked and gave me horrified looks even after I explained what it meant. The person who anonymously messaged me asking if I was worried I'd be a danger to my kids and might kill them because I'm crazy. The people who suddenly clear around me when they hear the store manager ask wht the dog is for and hear the word 'psychotic' in the explanation. There is a bubble of isolation and a fear of me that no amount of reassurance that literally, psychotic episodes mean I will be curled up in a ball bawling my eyes out, NOT systematically hunting people down to do some movie rendition of college kids being killed by a serial killer. That I am not the bad guy from Scream. That I am not Jason or Freddy or Dexter or Hannibal or any of that.

But the stigma is still there. The fear that I am a danger is still there. And that is why it's so hard to get help, and why so many people with my issues struggle and then fail to get treatment. Often they succumb and commit suicide, end up in mental hospitals, homeless on the street, and broken out of fear of themselves, not just what others fear about them.

It's just another illness, that's all. It's actually treatable. It's something that doesn't have to break you down, it's something that you can overcome.

I think a lot about the stigma, about the way people react to me, the lies I told just to avoid losing friends or being treated badly. And I'm writing this now, and will continue to be open about my issues because I want to clear the air. I want to set the record straight.

And I want to tell others who face the same challenges... it's okay. You're not a monster, you're not broken, you're not horrible. You can do this, it's a challenge, but it can be overcome. I have faith in you.

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