Living Stigma Free

I was listening to some oldies but goodies when a song transported me to a time in 8th grade when I was not yet grown-up but thought I was, a time when I wanted to go to the mall with my friends but as my newly teenaged self would say, “Ugh, my parents wouldn’t let me.”

It took me back to a time when I felt 100% supported and accepted by my peers, friends, adults, teachers, family; a time when I felt anything was possible if I put my mind to it.

The song made me feel a loss that I don’t think I’ve ever grieved; a hole in my heart. A hole created by the virus that is stigma. 

When I experienced my first episode

of depression at age 13, I spent some time in the hospital and then, as soon as I was able, was back to half-days at school. I felt no shame about it. When my friends and classmates asked me why I’d been gone, I simply said I had been depressed, with a capital D, had gone to the hospital to get well, and was slowly getting better every day. My peers understood this simple situation without judgment. The stigma that surrounded mental illness had not yet infected our middle-school minds.

With my first episode of mania the following year in high school, I also had my first episode of stigma and the heavy pain it unnecessarily adds to a serious and life-threatening illness. 

Cure Stigma

#JoinTheMovement to #CureStigma. Take the first step, take the #StigmaFree pledge, see the person not the condition, and learn more nami.org/stigmafree

Feeling like an observer to my body’s actions, I did cartwheels in class, a John Hughes dance montage with my imaginary friends in front of the real students in swing choir, and when taken to the vice principal’s office, during the few minutes I was left alone I erased appointments from his day planner, took framed photos and degrees off his wall, and finally collapsed with exhaustion under his desk. 

When I returned to school

I learned first-hand how mean girls work. Someone was having a party and this time I wasn’t invited. I started to gain weight from medication and comments would be made. It wasn’t my fault that my brain had hijacked my body but it didn’t matter. My actions to the naked eye had looked as if I was on drugs and in the Nancy Regan era of “just say no”, I was ostracized. 

I knew my parents loved me, but as a teenager, it was my peer’s approval and more importantly their understanding and compassion that I needed. I was in so much pain, invisible to the immediate eye. I remember keenly, as a young girl, how cold the world feels when you’re different. During a time when I needed my peers, teachers, and community support the most, I felt ashamed for possessing a mental illness and acutely alone.

“After A While…”

my cousin, close to my heart as a sister, gifted me a poem which I keep in a memory box. A box that if there is a fire in my home, in addition to my dog, what I grab to save. The poem:

After a while, you learn the difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul.

And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning and company doesn’t mean security.

And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts and presents aren’t promises.

And you begin to accept your defeats with your head up and your eyes open, with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child. 

And you learn to build all of your needs on today because tomorrow is too uncertain for plans and futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while, you learn that event the sunshine burns if you get too much.

So plant your own garden and decorate your own soul… 

instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you’ll learn that you really can endure, you really are strong, and that you really do have worth.

And you’ll learn and you’ll learn 

WITH EVERY GOOD-BYE, YOU’LL LEARN!! 

– author unknown –

It’s a poem that I’ve kept for over 20 years with “accept your defeats with your head up and your eyes open, with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,” ingrained in my memory and lived as a way of life.

I’ll be at your side forever more,

Hearing Gladys Knight sing  “In Good Times, In Bad Times,” remembering my 13-year old self and the stigma-free normal she knew, I felt a wall around my heart I didn’t realize was there. The first time I had unknowingly built such a wall, it was of ice which melted when I met my husband. This time, instead of ice, I’ve taken a page from the three little pigs and built my wall of bricks.

Problem is, in keeping others outside my wall to keep my heart safe from being hurt and broken, I’ve trapped myself behind it. I’ve kept my heart to myself, afraid to share who I am, what I want, and why I believe in certain things so passionately.

In this last year,

I’ve been taking a journey to be more courageous. That journey has brought me to today.

As I feel the bricks falling and tiny explosions in my chest as they are pushed out of their places, I am sad to realize the pain my heart has felt as of late has not been from the outside but from within. It has been me.

Today, like the Grinch who stole Christmas, my heart is refusing to stay any longer behind the wall and is yelling, “Enough with the brain already! Focus on me. I too need sunshine and love.” So…

I resolve

to continue my journey to become more courageous. I will continue to hold my head high with grace, strength, and wisdom. And my heart is now prominently traveling with me.

Like any good road trip, the bumps along the way are what make the best memories. Brain and I are looking forward to the ride. Welcome Heart!

*** *** ***

You are not alone. You matter. Visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org to online chat or call 1-800-273-TALK 8255. We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. #SuicidePrevention 

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About Stephanie George

I am Mary Crawley incarnate. I am old enough to know better and still too young to care; I like to look at the world through rose-colored lenses.
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