We had been at the bar surrounded by friendly co-workers, and while he joked around with every one, I felt the hollow pit of loneliness in my chest. The thoughts crawled up my shoulder like the legs of a spider, reminding me of what I knew since I was 15 years old—something was “wrong” with me. I had depression.
“I don’t think depression is real,” he said in the car.
My heart wanted to burst out of my chest.
“What do you mean?”
“Well–like—everyone is depressed. Everyone has shitty days. People just can’t deal with things. Shake it off.”
I felt myself sinking. I wanted to cry.
“What if I told you I might have depression?”
The shocked look—he stared at me a little differently as if flipping through memories trying to think if he could make sense of my statement.
“Come on, don’t say that, babe. You’re my rock. You’re so strong, you can’t have depression.”
In that moment, I realized that the person I really cared about did not understand what I was feeling and thinking. Yes, I was strong, but I was also battling with an illness every day. The conversation did not arise again until I had a horrible panic attack that kept me from going to work in the morning. I sat in the doctor’s office filling out an anxiety survey and crying as I slowly admitted to myself that I had both depression and anxiety. The hard part would be officially admitting it to my partner.
The Stigma of Mental Illness
Luckily, I had a doctor who understood, because she suffered from anxiety too. In fact, women are diagnosed more often with anxiety disorders, and it is not uncommon to also be diagnosed with depression, as I was. Also, “anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population.” While anxiety disorders are treatable, only one-third get help. Why?
Mental Illness. The name itself promotes stigma—suggesting that you are ill, specifically in your brain. It implies unreliability and a lack of strength and intelligence. The media does not help as “people with mental health conditions are often depicted as dangerous, violent and unpredictable.” Therefore, people with mental illness have to deal with their health problem and stigma and discrimination from others.
According to Psychologicalscience.org, “To avoid being discriminated against, some people may also try to avoid being labeled as ‘mentally ill’ by denying or hiding their problems and refusing to seek out care.” I learned to make my problems invisible to avoid judgement. While my family knew, my friends had a hard time even believing that the problem existed once I told them.
My partner was the last person to find out about my diagnosis, and he was hurt. Yet, based on his previous comments, I didn’t know how he would react. He was weary of the medication, but accepted my truth and was willing to support me. Yet, that was just the beginning.
How do you explain your mental illness to your partner?
Mental illness is innately hard to understand for people who do not experience it and just as difficult to explain. I got into arguments with my partner many times from insensitive comments and my hyper-sensitivity in relation to my illness. Some of it was from never fully trusting him after hearing his initial thoughts.
Ultimately, you need to be patient with yourself and your partner as they will need to be patient with you. It is important for them to understand how you deal with your mental health and what you need them to do for support.
Here are some ways they can learn about your mental health.
Reveal: Sometimes, mental illnesses such as anxiety have “some physical symptoms, especially during a panic attack, [which] include shortness of breath, shaking, nausea, headache, rapid heartbeat, [and] dizzy spells.” When I had an anxiety attack in front of him, his entire perception changed. Rather than hide what was happening, I asked for his support.
Talk: Sometimes, mental illness is not visible. In that case, they will have to believe and listen to you openly explain how you feel. I started by explaining to him how I sometimes felt sad, discouraged, or anxious without a specific trigger. Being able to trust your partner with the truth of your mental health will only strengthen your relationship.
Share: When I couldn’t conjure up the right words to explain, I would use a video or an article. There are thousands of online resources that perfectly describe how I feel as a person living with anxiety and depression. He admitted to being unaware and learning from what I shared with him.
Is it like you become a different person?
Yes, he asked me this, and this is not an uncommon misconception. He saw my mental illness like an on-off switch in my brain that changed my personality. I had to explain these were not over exaggerated feelings nor did I morph into a new person when I took medicine. In fact, “biological factors contributing to anxiety are still being studied, but brain scans of people suffering with various anxiety disorders have often shown evidence of chemical imbalances.” While the proof is there, it is still challenging to eliminate the stigma surrounding an “invisible” illness.
What can people do to nix the stigma?
People with mental disorders “coming out” and revealing the truth is taking a step in the right direction. I was lucky to have a family that understood mental illness, but, oftentimes in the black community, mental illness is overlooked and people are told to “get over it.” Since these illnesses are not visible, it will take more of a conscious effort of friends, family, and partners of those suffering from mental health problems to learn.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness has a three step process that can help you or people you know become an advocate in support of people with mental health issues.
- Step 1: Educate Yourself and Others
- Step 2: See the Person and Not the Illness
- Step 3: Take Action on Mental Health Issues
While it was an ongoing and, at times, frustrating process to develop my partner’s understanding of my mental illnesses, he was supportive and always willing to listen.
If you have a mental illness, make sure that you are with someone who reminds you that you have nothing to be ashamed of, defines you not by your illness and supports you in your ongoing battle.