Mental illness is an elephant huddled in the corner of society’s bedroom. It’s an elephant that tramples and destroys, scars and tears. For decades it was misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and mistreated. People living with mental illness have suffered treatments ranging from bizarre to downright brutal. But we live in a new era. An era where depression, bi-polar disorder, OCD, bulimia and any number of other illnesses are not only becoming better understood, but are also more effectively treated. So then why, in this day and age of such amazing progression, are the stigma’s regarding mental illness still so alive? Why are we still telling that elephant to just calm down, act more like the other elephants and just ‘be normal’. Maybe it’s because we still don’t understand that elephant well enough, or maybe its because we’ve never taken a good hard look at that elephant and realized just how familiar he/she is to us.
When I was working in Manhattan I typically commuted to and from New Jersey by train. Along the way I would either read or occasionally throw on some music and fall asleep. This was dangerous on the way home because, while en route to work I knew the train would end its route in Penn Station, falling asleep on the way home might mean missing my station and waking up in Perth Amboy or Belmar. So on the way home I would look out the window to stay awake, and every day I would pass this billboard. It was a billboard talking about depression, and the tagline said something to the effect of “You wouldn’t say It’s just cancer, get over it.” I liked this sign a lot. I liked that it described a mental illness for what it was, an illness. Not something to be ashamed of, not something to hide, but something to be diagnosed and treated. I had studied a bit of psychology in college and it always interested me. We watched a few films in one of my classes about people living with various mental illnesses, and it was the first time I think I began to really see these conditions for what they were. It’s hard to understand mental illness if you don’t have a mental illness, which I think is a big part of the problem. We all experience, to some extent, anxiety and depression and panic and confusion and any of the other countless symptoms, but we experience them in the way one might experience a thunderstorm. It’s there, it’s less than pleasant to be caught in, but it passes. But what about when that thunderstorm isn’t a thunderstorm, but a hurricane? A powerful hurricane that doesn’t pass but rather just hovers in place, constantly wreaking havoc with little reprieve. Because we’ve all felt some of the symptoms, it’s difficult to understand a person who struggles from a disorder that presents itself in these ways. But a bad mood after a shitty day at work is not depression, liking your DVD’s to be in alphabetical order is not OCD (though it can certainly be part of it…who owns DVDs anymore anyway?) and its the inability to draw the line between these little things and real illness that, I think, lends to the difficulty in understanding and empathizing with individuals who are struggling with mental illness.
Another bizarre factor of mental illness is that it can lay dormant, or build over time, until finally one event or instance just ‘Stone Cold stunners’ the camel’s back and suddenly someone’s faced with a full blown illness. I know mental illness, I’ve known plenty of people who have lived with different types. But it wasn’t until recently that I felt the need to use what voice I have to bring some attention to it. I was speaking with a friend who was telling me about her partner. Her partner suffers from a mental illness but refuses to even acknowledge it let alone be treated for it, and this is causing a major strain in their relationship. And who could blame her!? Who would want to be labeled as crazy, or insane, or mentally incapable of functioning in society. Who would ever willingly subject themselves to that? Who would want to be coddled or looked upon as some fragile object that might shatter if not handled properly? Who would want friends analyzing their every behavior, searching for a sign that they might be about to fall apart? Who would want to hear “I know how you feel” and then have their illness compared to the difficulties of facing the first week of college, or the anxiety faced before a midterm. And then I began thinking that maybe the key to breaking that stigma is just talking about mental illness, making the world a place where people who are living with these issues can come forward and speak openly about it without fear of being shunned or stereotyped. Maybe then people would be more willing to seek treatment, and help themselves, and help those who love them (who often suffer just as much as those actually facing the illness).
I was diagnosed with O.C.D. when I was 19, but I was living with it for much longer. When I was 14 some friends and I got into a pretty serious heap of trouble, and from that moment on the world gradually became a more terrifying place. This was my camel’s back, my tipping point. Over the years the illness built momentum before exploding the summer following my sophomore year of college. I told my family that I thought I needed some help handling what, up until then, had been a semi-controllable annoyance. But once I admitted it, once it was alive and able to take on a life of its own, it spread out and like a virus it infected every aspect of my life. Now I won’t go into details about the different things I dealt with, but they were bad. If organizing your DVDs alphabetically is a 1 and being convinced you’re dying is a 10, I was probably a 10.5-11. It was scary, and it was hard, and for the first time it became difficult to imagine how one continues to look forward to life with this elephant hanging around. I felt like I was tiny, and my life was being dictated by this massive monster who kept the real me locked in a tiny dungeon. But I gave myself over to the treatment, and I worked hard and by the fall of my junior year I was able to get on a plane bound for Ireland where I would do my semester abroad, something that only months ago seemed impossible. I had a lot of support, and because of these positives in my life I was able to take back my life and shove that monster into the tiny dungeon. And now I’m alive, and I love my life, and I relax and I take risks and I get dirty and I do things that would have given me a heart attack back then, but I’m alive.
Over the years I’ve become more and more comfortable telling this story. Most of my friends still don’t know, but some do. I’ll admit it, I was afraid of facing the same stigmas that I am sure are preventing my friends partner from admitting something is wrong and seeking treatment. I usually only told people if I knew they were facing something similar, and I thought my experience could help them. In a few cases, I told people because I had probably had one beer too many and when that happens I’m an open book. But I never regretted telling anyone because every time I did it took a piece of the power away from that tiny little monster in my pocket, and gave it back to me. It will never be cured, mental illness doesn’t work that way. It’s a part of me, but it’s something that can be controlled so that it doesn’t interfere with living.
I wrote this today because I want to encourage anyone reading it to learn about mental illness, understand its roots and what triggers it. I could be wrong, and I’m sure some people have had their suspicions about me, but I think some people probably would not peg me as having a mental illness. I hope that one day it won’t be looked at as anything crazier than a broken arm, or a bad flu, or some other ailment. And I hope then it will be treated and regarded in the same way. I also hope, above all else, that anyone with a mental illness who is struggling to seek help and acknowledge that this is a real medical issue that needs treatment. There is still a lot we don’t know about mental illness, and like many illness’s some can be treated more effectively than others. But awareness and education are the first steps.
So my name is Colin Johnson. I’m 26 years old. I’ve lived in four countries and traveled to more places than I can count. I’ve jumped off cliffs, squeezed through caves, hiked mountains. I speak two languages (sort of). I’m a teacher but I’ve also been a Peace Corps volunteer as well as having a handful of other positions. I’ve run marathons, I like to snowboard and read and climb stuff. I have made amazing friends, found an amazing partner, eaten foods I didn’t know could be eaten, and seen things too bizarre to put into words. I’ve decided to live life for the adventure that it is. And I’m one of the countless people all over the globe living with a mental illness.