Sometimes it strikes you in public. You’re having a bad day, something sets you off and one thing leads to another. The next minute you’re in a foetal position struggling to remember the breathing exercises your Psychiatrist taught you. Something about breathing through your nose. You’re crying and you’re not entirely sure why. Your chest feels ready to explode. If you survive this you might make it to work/uni/the party on time, right now you don’t care. You just want the world to stop for a minute so you can catch your breath.
I learned when I was diagnosed with this Anxiety Disorder that people can be cruel. They’ll sympathize with the kid who broke his leg or the girl who has severe diabetes. But when it comes to mental illness it’s out of sight out of mind. Don’t talk about it or you will suffer both the illness and peoples’ reactions to it, and stigma hurts. If people ask you why you’ve gained weight or vomit a lot or miss days off school or work, tell them you’ve got a virus. Don’t explain. They don’t want to know that your medication makes you ill or your anxiety is so bad that you can barely get out of bed, let alone leave the house. You’ll have a lot of viruses as a result.
They do care about you. But mental illness scares them, in part because they can’t see obvious physical signs of it. Seeing is believing in Western culture and as a result mental illness isn’t seen as real, except when you self-harm or your physical health suffers.
Well, after a decade of this, I’m pretty tired. Being tired at the age of 19 is not fun. I’ve been sick, made myself sick, missed school, failed classes, been physically and verbally assaulted, self-harmed, have scars, survived suicidal episodes, bad medication side effects (some of which are too graphic to write about here), last year I lived through the suicide of a family member, despair and the constant question: ‘when do I get better?’
I decided on my 18th birthday I wasn’t going to uphold the status quo by being quiet about my Anxiety Disorder. It wouldn’t be fair to me or the other people I know with mental illnesses, many of whom are LGBT. I’d like to think that honesty is the best policy and that it might help someone, somewhere. I know it helps me.
I’m not going to lie to you: I still struggle. I’m not depressed any more but the anxiety remains. There are days when I would rather eat my shoes than put them on and leave the house. Days like those I breathe deeply and remember that my phone has a lot of numbers in it. I can press a button and instantly be connected to someone who will listen. Honesty has allowed me to connect with people who can both support me and need my support. I feel loved.
I know that I am a strong, resilient person and that my struggle to get healthy is not in vain. I also know that mental health problems are extremely common amongst gay, lesbian, queer and trans* people. If we break the silence and support each other more, we can only get stronger as a community. And I know I love my community.
By Isobel Connell