Growing up in my family, privacy was key. The rule of thumb was that your problems were yours alone and that they should be handled as such. Don’t burden others with your personal issues, don’t air your dirty laundry out in the open and don’t tell anyone about what happens behind closed doors. These were household rules that my family lived by — rules I still haven’t quite been able to break free from.
It was difficult to follow these rules in my teenage years when there was so much happening that I wanted to talk about. When people asked me how I felt growing up with divorced parents, I shrugged it off — half the world has the same problem. When I moved out of my mom’s house, I never explained to my carpool group why they no longer dropped me off there after school. And when my dad moved away in the middle of my senior year, leaving me to live with my stepmom whom he had recently divorced, I kept my mouth shut. I attended class and pretended that I was fine. Things would happen around me or to me, and I would brush them under the rug with a nervous smile.
It took me a long time to realize that all of these struggles were building up like a clotted artery. It took me a long time to realize that my perpetual unhappiness, the playlist of fears constantly sounding off in the back of my mind, was not normal. I slowly understood that hitting myself out of frustration, being on the verge of tears every time I laughed and constantly wondering if I would ever do anything important were all signs that something was wrong, that I wasn’t OK.
But the Menzieses don’t burden others with their personal issues. So I continued to keep it all to myself. I became friends with people who were “talkers” and gave them advice about their struggles, hoping that it would help me work through my own. I told my stepmom very conservative details about my feelings: “I’m sad today,” or, “I’m stressed about college.” My frustration and pain came out every now and again in the form of uncomfortable jokes or unusually honest moments. But for the most part, everyone, including myself, understood only the surface level of what I was going through.
It’s not that I didn’t want to talk about it. I did. But with a family that seemed never to have dealt with anything like this and friends who seemed to lead turmoil-free lives, there was no precedent for me to follow. If I kept these things to myself, I wouldn’t have to publicize that I wasn’t normal. I wouldn’t have to address the fact that I felt crazy.
This is the fundamental problem behind the stigmatization of mental health issues — people, especially women, are led to believe that these types of struggles make them dysfunctional. Since disclosing mental illness can negatively affect job prospects, opportunities and relationships, people suffering from mental health disorders are isolated from the world. It can feel like if you tell the truth about your struggles, you will be written off as weak or hysterical. And a lot of the time, it can feel like mental health must be sacrificed for the sake of being seen as a normal person.
I have only recently been able to address some of my psychiatric struggles. These challenges have affected my relationships, my grades and my ability to participate in academic and social activities. My life has been altered by my inability to speak up for myself and to seek out the help I desperately needed. And despite panic attacks, crippling anxiety and regular spurts of depression, it took the loss of a friend for me to realize that the way I had been feeling for years was not going to just go away — and that I couldn’t fix it on my own.
I have since been diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. I used to tell myself that these challenges were just me “dealing with shit.” Identifying what my issues are and acknowledging that I have trauma that I need to work through has helped me overcome this misconception. Now, I see a counselor who helps me address these feelings that I once had to face alone.
I am still not completely forthright about certain aspects of my life and mental health. Sometimes the household rules I once lived by still shadow my ability to open up. But I’m making progress and I’m moving forward. Disclosing struggles with mental health is something people shouldn’t be afraid to do. Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, and it is something that can improve.
So burden others with your personal issues. Air your “dirty laundry” in the open and tell those whom you trust what you go through behind closed doors. Because it is something that can get better, but not on its own.
Maisy Menzies is the assistant arts editor. Contact her at [email protected] .