Stigma is a Locked Door: Being Honest About Mental Illness

*Note: This post was shared on another platform I write for a couple weeks ago. I hope you enjoy this re-share.

I’m not shy about sharing my mental health experiences because I don’t believe mental illness should be stigmatized. Stigma stands in the way of progress. It prevents understanding and limits access in varied situations. Stigma also breeds fear. An example is the way popular media has applied the idea of “bad” to specific religious practices or groups, vilifying them in the public eye.

What I’m saying is it’s important to ask questions, to get curious instead of afraid and angry, and to be honest.

This is a picture I shared on my private Instagram feed. In it, I am deeply anxious despite literally everything going right for me. There was no reason for the anxiety. It’s just part of me.

When I share my mental landscape, I’m being honest even though it makes me vulnerable. Don’t for a second think it isn’t frightening to me each time I hit “publish.” What keeps me sharing is the incredible number of people who show up and say “me too.”

The truth is, we are not alone in our experiences. Anxiety, depression, autism, PTSD, OCD, disordered eating and so many more diagnostic terms and codes apply to most of the people in our lives. Not because there is something wrong with any of us. These labels are simply ways of understanding the ways our experiences vary from the accepted norm. They help us apply a framework and seek the best methods for self-care, allowing us to live our best lives.

It’s when we deny possibility that we suffer.

We don’t need diagnoses to know if we are feeling bad. They are a tool to tell us if there is an ongoing reason why a state of mind persists, especially when it defies logic.

Take me, for example. I am the happiest I have ever been. My business is at its best. My children are amazing. I live in a home and on a property I love. My husband and I have created our best relationship to date. I have multiple tools at my disposal for self-care.

Here I am totally relaxed in my hammock yesterday.

But I’m depressed.

I can’t shake it, even though I’ve been aware and working on it very actively using multiple therapies and interventions for years. My brain keeps firing those patterns. Depressed and anxious is my baseline. I can’t remember a time I didn’t feel this way. I have dealt with this since I could think, and I’m told even as an infant.

This is my norm. And I could hide it or mask it and, through those choices, further stigmatize my experience.

Or I can be honest and state flat out that this is me, I’m okay with me, and live in the open.

Staying open is a challenge. But, stigma is a closed door. Closed doors lead to fear. We can’t see to understand what’s on the other side. So we imagine. We fill the space beyond with monsters. We produce reasons to keep the door shut so we don’t have to reach into our own pockets and recognize we hold the key.

That key is compassion. And through compassion, acceptance. Understanding. More honesty.

Those of you who are reading, thank you. I appreciate you keeping those keys handy, that door open. In my experience, most of us have experienced both sides of the door. I hope one day we can remove it entirely.

Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is an essayist, fiction writer, poet and instructor with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Some of her work has been published in The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, [wherever], The Huffington Post, The Oxford Review and Exit 7. Her writing explores the intersections of race, place and survivorship. She writes with honesty about her own experience in order to transform pain.

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