My Safeway grocery shopping junket the other day was the same as any other until it was my turn to pay for my produce. Before starting to ring up my order, the cashier stopped, pulled a couple of tablets out of her apron pocket, and swallowed them with a swig of water. “Almost forgot to take my antidepressants!” she said, scanning the bar code on a jug of milk. After that, the regular small talk ensued.
A number of different thoughts crossed my mind. Did she disclose that information in order to elicit a response from me, empathetic or otherwise? Or is she so accepting of herself and her illness that she didn’t even think twice about vocalizing her condition? Did my own thoughts about her change after she told me that she had depression? And finally, if everybody was just out with it, would there be fewer stigmas around mental illness?
When a gay person comes out of the closet, so to speak, they often say that they decided to publicly acknowledge their sexuality because they could no longer bear to hide any part or aspect of their being. Their desire for the feeling of freedom and authenticity becomes greater than their fear of reprisal and judgment. Of course, if the latter didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be closets in the first place. Freedom and honesty and acceptance could abound for all. I’m not necessarily talking about disclosure between a Safeway cashier and a casual shopper, but how many people out there are hiding a mental illness from their friends, family, coworkers or employers?
It seems that we always have a great deal of compassion for people with a physical illness, especially if their story is one of triumph. We love a story of someone beating cancer and then running a marathon (or winning a Tour de France). How about for the people that have a mental illness and are still standing and thriving? Are we there with a high five (or maybe just general acceptance) for them, too?
Closets are places where we hide things so that our lives look tidy. They are for vacuum cleaners and footballs and jackets and pogo sticks. I don’t like to think that some of the people around us — some that we know and love, and some that are strangers – feel like they have to be in a closet, shoved in with the odds and ends of the rest of the household. I prefer to envision the triumph of the alcove, with a reading bench and a bay window, where people can sit in quiet repose or invite us in to hear their story. And the beautiful thing about an alcove is that there is no door in between us.
My mom just finished her last round of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, and she is paranoid schizophrenic. She has two diseases that she didn't ask for, didn't do anything to bring upon herself, and both diseases, in very different ways, are taking her life away. One of those diseases people will walk 60 km for and run 24 hour relays for finding the cure… the other disease is fodder for jokes, or just not spoken of. I wonder if there will ever be a day when people walk 60 km to find a cure for any form of mental illness?
Laura Enridge Zera says
Well put, Estelle, and unfortunately, so very true. I wish your mom well and hope that the treatments work for her. Thanks for sharing.
Love the alcove analogy. While in college, I wrote a story about the stigma of depression for a journalism class. While society may be more accepting and understanding of the illness than in times past, I think we still have a ways to go in viewing someone with depression the same way we view someone with diabetes or high blood pressure. Thanks for a well-articulated post.
Laura Zera says
Diane, thanks for your comment. I think that the digital age has done wonders in creating a safe space for people to talk about mental illness, and there they can choose to be anonymous or not. The harder bit is the face-to-face! People are so courageous, though, and if we keep having conversations through any medium, the stigma will decrease. So let's keep talking!