Photo credit: stevendepolo / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Stigma. As if having mental health problems wasn’t enough to have to deal with. However, I’m not just talking about other people’s stigmatising views but, sadly, my own.
I’ve had a very up and down couple of days. Yesterday I felt quite happy and was waxing lyrical about my fruit-picking activities, and almost feeling “normal” again; come today, tiredness and lethargy punctuated by several crying fits. I’ve been plagued by many intrusive thoughts.
One of those thoughts was guilt for being ill when there are others around me who are far more unwell. That I shouldn’t be ill because I have a job. That my illnesses were that severe really – that I should just be able to cope and “get on with it”.
The CBT Workshop
Then I remembered, with some embarrassment, the meltdown I had at last Saturday’s CBT workshop.
I was already irritable and self-conscious that day, as my dermatillomania was particularly bad and the result was a dozen large weeping scars on my face. I didn’t want to be in an environment where I could be seen by lots of other people.
Not that I would have relished it even if my skin was relatively clear.
I always find the prospect of meeting new people inherently scary partly due to my immense talent for causing offence (none ever intended). However, I was determined to go anyway as my therapist had been very kind and good to me – I didn’t want to let her down by not going when I said I would go.
I turned up after getting a taxi to this odd concrete building in the middle of a large industrial estate.
I wasn’t late but most people had arrived some time before me and when I got into the room where the workshop was taking place, I found that the only seat available was in the very middle of about six rows of closely packed chairs. I felt hemmed in, scared. I had not prepared myself for how closely I was going to have to sit near strangers.
- Could they smell the fact that I had barely washed?
- Could they see the sticky barely healing wounds on my face?
- What were they thinking?
- Why were they here? I could see several rows of nicely groomed people with brushed hair, polished shoes and no marks on their faces. Why are they here?
I was shaking like a leaf. What finally triggered me was when a late-comer had to take a chair from outside and had to ease his way through the clump of chairs (and workshop participants). He accidentally brushed past me and sat closely behind me.
I freaked out and ran out of the room crying and shaking. I sat down on the carpet outside in the corridor, knees together, back against the wall. I cried and rocked.
One of the facilitators ran out after me. After a few minutes I noticed that she had started talking to me.
I can’t remember exactly what she said; I can remember most of what I said.
“What are they doing here? I’m a bona-fide mental” I screamed, then cried some more. “What are they doing here? – they are all nice and tidy – they are normal!”.
“Look at me! Look at me!”
It was true – I looked a mess. I had taken the trouble of wearing a brand-new sweater for the day but my jeans I had worn for the entire previous fortnight and slept in them. It had couple of stains from some barbecue sauce that I had spilt. I wore my battered Converse trainers, shrivelled up from my ill-advised attempt to put them in the washing machine.
My hair was greasy from not having been washed for weeks. It had a slight halo of frizz from having walked through some drizzle earlier. I was deodorant and make-up free.
In my meltdown my brain decided that appearance was a universally reliable diagnostic tool for mental health.
Tears and prejudice
Indeed my appearance is not my “normal” baseline and is indeed caused by the lethargy and decrease in self-esteem that I am experiencing with depression. However having previously talked with my therapist I consider the possibility that I have in fact been unwell for quite some time before my actual breakdown.
The OCD thoughts had been sapping at me, I started having crying spells, anxiety and intermittent insomnia. I did used to make an effort – nice hair, nails and elegant dresses – but OCD was such that it compelled me to spend hours so that I could look that way. I was burning the candles both ends. Beneath the professional exterior lay a mind in turmoil.
Yet I judged other people for looking “tidy”.
Some time later when I had calmed down I ventured in. The nice facilitator lady had got me a chair next to a side table and away from the main group.
I started listening.
Amongst the presentation of the material people shared their stories of how anxiety and panic attacks had prevented them from driving, going to the supermarket and a whole load of other common scenarios.
The fact that they looked presentable did not make their distress any less real. I suddenly felt ashamed at myself.
One of the disturbing things I have encountered over the last couple of weeks is the realisation of how much of society’s stigma and stereotyping of mental illness I had internalised.
I realised that if I was to make progress in my recovery, I would have to ensure that I am more conscious of these thoughts. I need to challenge them and not use them on myself as a tool of oppression.