Ahh judgemental people. Us “head cases” are the frequent targets of their ridicule and ignorance. We’ve thickened our skin and narrowed our ears, so that the thoughtless comments can’t penetrate us. But what happens when we’re stigmatised by the people who should know better? What happens when we let our guard down, to try to help someone who’s suffering and they use our kindness to invalidate our experiences and pass judgement on us?
A couple of years ago, my husband and I were out with some friends of his. There was an individual in the group, whom I didn’t know very well. As the night went on, this guy became increasingly melancholic. He spoke openly about his depression and suicidal thoughts. I shared my experiences, not in a one upmanship “my pain is greater than yours” kind of way (well, I hope it didn’t come across in that way). I shared my story to demonstrate that I have first hand experience, therefore my sympathy wasn’t superficial. It was a “you’re not alone” gesture.
It was obvious that this person wasn’t interested in what I had to say, because he’d already formed an opinion of me. His response was, “but the difference between you and me is, I have low self esteem.” Pow! A low blow which rendered me speechless. I retreated back into my shell. I felt kind of betrayed that someone who was supposed to be on the side of “us” had labelled me, had turned native.
What annoyed me the most, was his opinion was based on the mask I wear – my alter ego. Public Me, is outgoing and takes the piss out of myself and life. The dark circles around my eyes are buried underneath layers of concealer, my fake smile distracts people’s attention from the sadness in my eyes, my tear streaked cheeks are coloured in with blusher, my laughter replaces my earlier sobs. I dress the body I hate in dark colours and thick tights. If I can’t fade into the background, I hide my pain in plain sight instead.
Why did this narrow minded person and his nasty comment affect me so much? Well, it was nasty for a start. But more than that, it was borne out of stigma and judgement. The same stigma and judgement that I’ve had to endure, for the majority of my life. He invalidated me and my experiences, merely because I choose not to conform to the stereotypical image of a “depressive.” He discredited my illness, because I choose not to be a poster child, or to wear my illness as a badge of honour. I responded to his cries for help, with kindness and empathy. He used my kindness as a weapon against me. And guess what? I didn’t counter his nastiness with nastiness back then, and I don’t now. He still becomes melancholic after a few drinks, and I still show him kindness. And he still thinks I’m some attention seeking imposter, who’s trying on mental illness, like a new pair of Louboutins. For the record, I haven’t yet found a pair of shoes that perfectly compliments my depression; and my bum does look big in it.
His, and countless other’s casual invalidation of me has got me thinking about stereotypes. What does mental illness look like? Well, I’ll tell you. Mental illness looks like the beautiful, charismatic musician. Mental illness looks like your favourite athlete. Mental illness looks like the larger than life stand-up comic. Mental illness looks like the Oscar nominated actor or actress. Mental illness looks like your doctor, your boss, your teacher, your best friend, your relative, your neighbour. Mental illness looks like you. Mental illness looks like me. Mental illness is not an exclusive club, where only the ones who “look the part” are granted admission. And if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, tell them to remove your name from the guest list.
Photo by Abigail Lynn, courtesy of Unsplash.com