depression is real, you are beautiful, and stigma is stupid

this week is mental health awareness week, so i figured i would contribute something to the ole mental health community.  there is a "defeat denial" campaign put off by the CAMH and lots of other nice things.  there are probably lots of more fun interesting things i could talk about like how falafel at mohammed ali's is the most spectacular drunk food, but i'm gonna go with this for now.

stigma around my depression has not been a big part of my life for the past year.  the people around me all know about my depression and are loving and never judgmental and try to understand that sometimes they can't understand and that's okay but honestly it's really not a big deal and it's really not a big part of my life when i'm happy.  i know the stigma pretty well, but my family and friends and former teachers and conductors and current professors; these people in my life are spectacular champions of non-stigma and the most genuine love and maybe they should all get awards (i think they really should).  and i'm feeling pretty good now, and i'm pretty happy i have them.  and so i don't know all that much about stigma, but this is what i do know:

there are always little wisps of guilt and shame shrieking that depression is not okay and i am crazy and selfish, and so i meander through all of my little 'healthy cognitive structures' and try not to internalize and can bring myself to this conclusion: depression is real, you are beautiful, stigma is stupid and sometimes people are wrong.  and i know that.  there is no stigma around my life, and there is no stigma that i adopt and nurture and call my own, but it is still there.  and that is my point.  there is stigma in the air.

when stigma comes my way, i'm pretty good at dealing with it.
some people are just wrong.  stigma is stupid.  if people can't handle depression, i really honestly don't want them in my life.  if someone hears that i'm depressed and doesn't want to go out with me then my response is: well obviously you are the worst person in the world so no thank you anyways.  but anyways.
this is what is wrong with stigma: stigma is a social license to stop caring and stop listening.
the answer to any stigma is always simple: "you don't know me."

i remember the most recent explosion of stigma in my life was when someone who had been a pillar of strength and support and wonder said to me in one of my most vulnerable moments, 'but are you really actually trying to get better? sometimes i don't think you are?'
woup! there we go! good point.  my doctors must have missed that.  it's been that easy all along!  if only the psychiatrists and therapists had prescribed 'effort', maybe i could have just picked my little self up and romped along, happy and carefree.

but here is the thing: there is a problem with the question, but there's a problem with my reaction too.
the reason stigma exists is because it has to fill the air with assumptions when people don't talk about things and when people don't listen.  and so if i react in my little defensive way, the only thing i really achieve is stifling the conversation even more.  because it isn't fair to assume what people know and what people don't know either.  the response is 'you don't know me,' but sometimes that needs to stick; you just don't know.  the reason we tend to hear the same theories over and over again ('you're just not trying,' 'you're just looking for attention,' 'just snap out of it') is because people are doing everything they can to try to make sense of something, to try to deconstruct something that they just don't know.  it's because people are trying to understand, by applying a mentally healthy framework to a unhealthy mind.  honestly, they're making due with what they have and it's hard to blame people for that.  they just don't know.  and so this is what stigma is made of: what people don't know, what we expect them to know, and pride.

i'm not so sure it is fair for me to assume that people know that my sadness isn't about greed or effort or attention.  here's the catch: as long as they don't assume that they do know.  my friends ask me questions all the time.  they usually preface it with long rambling  ihopethisisn'toffensivei'mjustcuriousmaybethisisthewrongthingtosay missives, and then they ask one of the typical questions and that is okay.  because the only way to push stigma away is to fill the air with conversation and with answers, so people don't need to try to guess 'why'.  and so that is what i try to do.  i try to answer the questions as honestly as i can, in a way that makes sense to people.  not everyone can be this open about it.  i mean i'm pretty painfully frank about it when i do talk about it, which might be 1% of the time because there are more interesting things in the world, but it took me a reallllllllly long time to work my way through my own issues and talk about it, because it is really hard to tell people who do nothing but love you that you do nothing but hate yourself.

so for people who can talk about it, talk about it.
for the people who don't know about it, ask about it.  please don't assume that you know or can know.
we need to remember the open space for assumptions that stigma is made of, and we need to fill it, and we need to never assume that we do know or never assume that someone else knows what we know.  and there will probably always be people who don't care enough to know and don't want to hear about it, but don't worry about them.  they're probably annoying anyways.
just keep trying to clear the air.  keep asking questions nicely, keep answering them nicely, and never assume anyone knows anything.

(i think this week i might post a little about the-things-that-people-don't-understand and clear the air around some of the things (if i have time which i probably will because i am sick with cold and fever and flu etc) that i hear a lot)


  1. Please keep writing.
    My mom had depression when I was young, but it wasn't talked about - probably wasn't even diagnosed until I was in university. There were so many frustrations I had that could have been alleviated if we'd been able to just talk about it. You're so right: we don't know. But at least knowing that we don't know goes a long way towards acceptance and support.
    ...and stigma is real (and stupid) - I'm writing this, thinking "is it ok for me to write that my mom has depression??" as if it's a terrible dark secret.
    Please keep writing.

  2. Meaghan, definitely keep writing.
    I was told 3 years ago by my GP, "I've been waiting for you to say this". Apparently my incredibly painful (mostly due to the fact that I'm the proudest idiot on earth) decision to sit there crying, trying to work up the guts to say I think I'm depressed, came as no surprise to her. She had diagnosed me in her head 10 years ago.
    Growing up in Montreal, I went to see councillors a few times for a year, I thought there was something wrong about the lack of motivation, and my desire to jump in front of the metro every morning felt abnormal to me, 10 year old me. I was sent back to class every time, after being told I was just sad or as the french speaking councillor once so precisely explained to me, simply "deprime pas depressive", and seeking attention.
    My classmates started asking questions, calling me a troubled kid, saying I was insane, my best friend even called me dramatic. As a 10 year old, you take adults to be right, and kids to be imitated. So I started hiding it. I never spoke of it again, hid my sadness, became shy, cut myself out of any social groups, just to protect my secret deranged thoughts. I constantly told myself I was stronger than this, that so many people had it way worse, and yet were doing so much better than me, that I just needed to try harder. And you know what, I still do.
    This is it, I'm a depressed person, I will always have depression. But I will never again let it have me.
    My main sadness right now is this; how do I talk to my own loving mother about it. She does not understand it, at all, and although she seems to want to understand, and I try to talk (but I get frustrated and as a defence mechanism, albeit a bad one, I just say never mind, and stop talking), it just never feels better.
    How do you get away from the "I didn't know it was that bad", "come on, just come out and you'll feel better", without hurting someone's feelings by telling them it has nothing to do with them?
    Anyway, your post encouraged me to comment, for the first time, sorry for my delay. I promise to keep talking/writing about depression. Thank you Meaghan.

  3. Wonderfully said.. the stigma attached to depression is so unfair.


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