I am clearly the ‘save my life school’ senior these days. New students are joining the class daily; we’re almost overflowing with them. I’ve even been told that I need to start weaning myself off of the program because I’m getting close to the end…no more Wednesdays for me! Yikes…it’s bitter sweet and a bit scary because the weekends can still be a battle for me to get through without class. So three days a week off will take some getting use to (hence the word ‘weaning’ I suppose). I digress… Today I wanted to write about the common themes I am witnessing with every new student. One by one, each of them eventually declares that they are still not able to a) accept that they belong in the class, and b) admit to others that they have a mental health illness for fear of being  judged. They talk about complex webs they are weaving to cover up their actual whereabouts through the week because they are afraid co-workers and family will look down upon them if they are honest. Been there! Done that! Hated it!

Why these themes are reoccurring is simple; STIGMA. That loathsome dark cloud of stigma that hovers over every mental health sufferer’s head is unmistakable. It lies to us and says that, “People won’t understand the illness”, “It’s a sign of weakness”, “People never heal fully”…and on and on. It was stigma that kept me for joining ‘save my life school’ a year ago…and possibly sent me to 3NC again. I thought I didn’t ‘fit the mould’. I was a professional and a kick ass mom… Why would need help with my mental health illnesses? Only dysfunctional people in society needed that, right? WRONG. Even as a medical professional myself, I believed only certain people joined ‘save my life school’. Even was naive and let the stigma fool me.

Fast forward to today. I witnessed two students quite easily tell the class what they have already planned to say, or not say, when they are done school so that people don’t know they were in the hospital program. Sigh…I will zip my mouth. It’s not my place to make them tell the truth. They are adults. I can’t change them…but the deceit and pain the stigma causes infuriates me. Just then my teacher points to me, like she was reading my mind! “Natalie, you went through a rough go with stigma not long ago…” My head-nod agreedThen without hesitation she signals for me to talk about it with a wave of her hand. I won’t sound like a know it all right?…I got permission…here goes. “I lived the stigma every day before this program. When my boyfriend was at work I would make sure he wasn’t standing near anyone when I was crying on the phone for fear that my co-workers would find out! I hid my illness from everyone. I played the ‘wonder-woman’ part to get by…until I cracked after a bad call. Hiding my illnesses was exhausting. And to be honest, I’m not really sure if I remember what hiding feels like anymore! Freedom from the stigma feels like nothing I can accurately describe with words. In short, it feels amazing!” After seeing a big smile on my teachers face I went on to tell the ‘new kids’ about my blog, and that over 40,000 people have viewed it from all over the world. There was no hiding for me anymore…and I wouldn’t change that for anything. A fellow student who already reads my blog even reminded me let the class know that Clara Hughes favorited a tweet about it (a fact that anyone would be proud of if they were in my mental health awareness and recovery shoes…like she’s kind of a big deal in that world).

I also went on to remind them that they are the farthest thing from weak! Hell, every person I’ve met in class has been SO strong! Strong enough to cry, strong enough to talk, and strong enough to keep showing up! They put one foot in front of the other through depression, anxiety and more, willing to learn and heal, all the while knowing that it wouldn’t be easy. Admitting you need help is not for the faint of heart; and making the choice to be a new student at ‘save your life school’ took a whole lot of guts! And I believe it’s enough guts to wipe away their complex stigma webs…one day soon.