I remember my first psychiatric hospitalization when I was thirteen. Around the same time a young man who attended my school was hit by a car while riding a bicycle without a helmet. He had to be put into a medically induced coma and there was a huge to-do when he returned to class. Also around that time, a high school student committed suicide. Other than the small tribute placed near and on his locker, nothing was said. I recall talking to my school guidance counselor about the three situations, asking why everybody was so involved when the young man hit by a car came back, but nothing was said about my hospitalization or the high school student’s recent suicide. “It’s different,” she said. Not different as in varying levels of severity, but “different” as in, there is a stigma behind mental illness that means we can celebrate the return of a student who had a physical injury but not a student who struggles with their mental health.
Recently in a church function I attended, the group gathered in prayer and offered up love to two church members who had physical ailments and surgeries plaguing them. One of the church members even offered herself up for prayer, asking others in the group to keep her in their thoughts. Now, I’m not saying that the members of this church group are blind to the difficulty of mental health concerns or that they would have judged me or not prayed for me had I asked them – far from it. They’re all wonderful and kind people. But there are things that make it difficult for me to admit to needing people to pray for me. That stigma that meant that folx at my school were celebrating the return of an injured student while ignoring the suicide of another also makes it difficult to ask for help.
I remember the night my church friends became more acutely aware of my issues. I tried as hard as I could, but I couldn’t hold back the tears and ducked into the bathroom to ride the wave of my PTSD-triggered panic attack. Someone who needed to use the bathroom could her me crying and asked if I was OK. She gave me a hug and I tearfully mumbled what I had hoped to keep a secret from these people I didn’t know very well: “I have bipolar disorder…” One of the other church folx, aware of the fact that I had an appointment with a new primary care physician that day, asked if I had received bad news from the doctor. I wished so badly that this was the case. It would be so much easier to explain, especially considering the cultural and generational divides present in this group of church-goers. When someone is from a country where the stigma surrounding mental health is even worse than it is in the US, or when they grew up in a time where admitting to mental health concerns was a big no-no, it makes it hard to really talk about what’s going on. Even people my own age still cling to some of these hurtful beliefs – I recall quite well being made fun of for admitting to being on psychiatric medication as a middle schooler, for no other reason than you just weren’t supposed to admit something like that because it’s embarrassing.
Whenever I can’t make it to a church function, the reason usually has to do with either my mental health directly or some offset of the spoon theory. I might not be having an active panic attack, but I may just need to involve in a little bit of self-care and sleep in because I had a mentally draining week. I wish it were easy to be honest with my church friends about why I’m not actively attending church functions as much as I’d like to, but it’s so much easier to say I’m sick, or I have a migraine, or some other physically related excuse. Besides being terrified that I’ll eventually be asked to stop attending church functions because I can’t commit to them in the capacity that is desired, I just don’t have the strength to be frank about why I’m not there, or why I’m ducking out into the bathroom, or why I’m texting someone on my phone when I should be paying attention to what’s going on. Maybe if I did have that strength, and I could request that my church friends pray for me, and if I could be honest with them about what’s going on, G-d would answer those prayers and things would be easier. I even briefly considered making a new goal for the new year – that, in order to battle stigma surrounding mental health, I would be more honest about why I was skipping social functions instead of reverting to my usual “I came down with something” or “I’ve been busy”. But I’m just not sure if that’s a good idea, or if I’m ready for it yet. The fact is, people treat physical ailments differently than mental ones, and they are often much more understanding of the former. I’ve lost friendships because I became too open with my condition too quickly and the people involved couldn’t cope with the severity of my symptoms and the intensity of my emotions. These weren’t people born in different countries or people born fifty years before I was – these were Millenials, relatively open-minded ones, who simply couldn’t be friends with someone who has a mental health concern as serious as mine. The danger of letting someone in and having them back away quickly is all too real.
Maybe it is different. Different in the sense that neurotypical and aneurotypical are different, but neither one is bad.
Different… but not bad.
Maybe it’s harder to admit to, and maybe it means I’ll never be close to certain types of people. Maybe it means I’ll never be able to work, and maybe it means I’ll take a pill for the rest of my life.
Maybe it’s different.
But it’s not bad.
And it’s worth a prayer or two.