Until your friend stands and looks you in the eye explaining why mental illness isn't the same as physical illness...

Until your professor refuses to let you make up an exam and get full credit after missing a medicine dose caused a missed class session...

Until your school requires you to get a three-page sheet on disability filled out in order to accept that your mental illness is real...

You don't understand. Not until it happens to you.

I thought I understood.

I'd lived the disease. I'd been through the hospital. The psych ward. The nightmares. I'd faced the overwhelming diagnoses, worked through my fear of medication. I faced fear and shame and denial and anger, and I lived to tell a tale of strength and awareness and acceptance, of diagnosis and treatment and advocacy.

I thought I understood.

I read the stories and the research. I knew the facts and the names. I could tell my story forwards and back. I engaged in learning my friends' stories and struggles as well as my own. I wrote and spoke and argued for better research, better treatments, better support.

I thought I understood.

Until I faced the stigma of my own mental illness at my own school in my own very personal way.

I thought I understood.

And then I did.

You don't understand what the word stigma really means. You don't understand how it bleeds outside its dictionary definition to color and shade and shame the people it stains. You don't feel the pushing need to keep the labels and stories locked inside together. You don't see the tears cried over a well-worn keyboard. You don't hear the inner debate on how much to tell, how much to hide. You don't understand.

You don't understand how Stigma rips through your insides until she's latched on to every fiber, every molecule. You haven't lived under her all-encompassing reign over heart and mind. You haven't agonized over the various possible reactions of anyone who finds out, figures out What You Have. You haven't beat back the gag reflex when a big yellow paper labeled "students with disabilities" is handed to you. You don't understand.

Until it happens to you, you don't understand.

I understand now.

It's happened to me.

Related post: What do you believe about psychiatry?


  1. It sucks that this kind of stuff does happen, that people aren't actually as understanding as they pretend they are. Although I have to agree with the friend who said that physical illness isn't the same as mental illness: often, mental illness is worse.


    1. I'd hesitate to agree with that. There are things that make mental illness more difficult to handle than certain physical ailments, but I wouldn't say it's /worse./ I don't expect any less than a person with cancer or AIDS or osteoporosis, but I don't expect any more, either.


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