People struggling with a mental illness face incredible stigma from the outside world. In some cases, well-meaning people say things like “just get over it” or “why are you bringing up the past.” Sometimes these things are said with the best of intentions. Maybe family or friends are “encouraging” their loved one or, as someone I once knew loved to say, “…practicing tough love.” Then there are people that just do not understand and voice their opinions freely. They might even sound like they know what they are saying. But, coming from a place of not knowing, they do not even know what they do not know and do more harm than good. And then there is work. If you go to a job interview and talk to them about your mental illness the chances are better than average that you will not get the job you wanted.
Maybe what hurts more than the outside stigma is when we internalize the stigma. How many people struggling with a mental illness judge themselves harshly, limit themselves, expect that they won’t be able to…(fill in the blank). I have listened to people talk harshly about themselves and not even bat an eye. I think, wow, if I just said the same thing to them, that they said to themselves, they would get angry and storm out. I once met with a group of people struggling with depression and, as they introduced themselves, they seemed genuinely surprised by the accomplishments they made. One said something like “Can you believe, I’m a musician.” And yes I can believe it and why wouldn’t I? Struggling with a mental illness does not make you less creative, less intelligent, less resilient, less human.
What if we re-imagined what life with a mental illness can look like? What if we stopped limiting possibilities and, instead, began making realistic goals and started working towards them. I am reading an article by Wendy Brown, Narratives of Mental Health Recovery, published in 2008 in the journal Social Alternatives, Vol 27, No 4. In her article she talks about recovery being a process whereby people gain, or regain, self-esteem, hope, and the possibility of a meaningful life. Get this, she says recovery “is about embracing the identity and self-determination of a healthy and hopeful person” (page 42).
A healthy and hopeful person. Do you imagine yourself that way? If not, why not? Is it because the stigma around us is so easy to internalize? Is it because we have listened, over and over, to people that do not even know what they do not know? Well, let’s stop listening to them and begin imagining, or as one peer group facilitator said “re-imagine” what life can be like.
Recovery is a deeply personal journey with different starting points and different ending points. What do you want out of your life? What do you need to do to accomplish your goal? Can you accept who you are at this moment, and challenge yourself to accomplish great things in your future?