A few weeks ago during a meeting with some people from my course at university, two members of my group made a derogatory and upsetting comment about people with mental illness. This was not the first time I had heard people on my course speak in this way about mental illness – it was simply one of many.
Yesterday I met with my personal tutor to discuss how I am doing. I updated her and told her about some difficulties I have been having with other people on my course, especially with their judgments and insensitivity. She told me that she had been thinking about me since I emailed her about my concerns, and that she had an idea and wanted to set me a challenge in order to address them.
She said that despite my social anxiety, she has great faith in my ability to communicate openly and honestly to people on things I am passionate about. She always appreciates and learns from what I share with her and believes that I have a lot of insight into not just my own struggles but into life in general. She believes that I have a lot to offer and that through sharing some of my experiences at university, I could really help educate my course mates, which could help both them and myself.
She set me the challenge of designing and presenting a talk, workshop or presentation to my peer group about what it is like living with mental illness. When she first told me her idea, I immediately shrank into myself and said there was absolutely no way I would even consider it. I told her I am too scared of having a panic attack, my face going red, sweating like a pig, dissociating in public, making a fool of myself, etc, that I couldn’t ever contemplate the possibility of such a thing.
However, as the day went on I got thinking about it more and more. Despite the prospect of getting up in front of my class and talking about all things related to mental health being my absolute worst nightmare, it could also be an amazing opportunity and potentially really positive experience. (Wow, so dialectical, I know!)
I have always dreamed of being able to get up on stage and advocate for myself and others with mental health issues. I have seen so many people share their stories publicly in this way and have never been anything less than inspired and blown away by their bravery. I have always said to myself “I wish I could do that” and then brushed off even the possibility that maybe one day I could.
But now I have been offered the chance to expose my story to this group of people (who, believe me, are in great need of being educated about mental illness!), and a part of me knows that it is an opportunity I just have to take it up. (Okay fine there are only 20 of us, and I definitely won’t be on a stage, but hey ho, the intimacy of this option is anxiety-provoking in itself!)
I really want to dispel some of the myths these people hold about mental illness and the “crazy people” I have heard them mock. I want to help them realise the importance of sensitivity and compassion – not judgment and ridiculing – for people struggling with mental illness like me every day. I want to teach them what validation is, and what things are helpful or damaging to say when someone is struggling with their mental health, or heck, just struggling in general. Most of all I want to help them understand that people with complex mental illnesses are not another species; we are not scary, we are not going to hurt you, we are not people you need to avoid. We are people just like everyone else, who are ill and need support without being made to feel ashamed. In fact some of us are the most sensitive and caring people you will ever come across.
I want them to ask questions and not be scared of me and I want to answer them honestly. I want them to know how bad I have been and how far I have come in many ways. I want them to know how hard it still is and what I have to face every single day. I want them to know how many people there are like me out there in the world, and how mental illnesses are nothing to be ashamed of. I want them to stop judging me and instead understand why I sometimes have extra provisions in place which previously have made them resentful. I want to help open their minds to consider that all is not what it seems, that everyone has their story, and you really cannot judge a book its cover.
I’m shit scared, and have no idea how I am going to do this whatsoever. I just know that I am going to do it, whatever it bloody takes!
I want to finally be able to wear a t-shirt in class, to expose my self-harm scars with my peer group, and feel like I am accepted regardless.