Sunday, August 21, 2016

Smile for a Shield, Stories for a Sword

Today I've got Taylor from Stay on the Page on the blog with an absolutely lovely personal post for Shattering Stigmas. So please give her a warm welcome!!


People often tell me that I have a great smile. And in a way, I suppose they’re right. I naturally have a smile that takes up a lot of my face, wrinkling my nose, pushing up my cheeks and crinkling my eyes into thin crescents when I’m excited. I can fake this smile to almost the same extent, so much so that it has become nearly impossible for other people to tell which of my smiles are real and which are fake. 

When I’m at my best, I’m a goofball who will laugh at anything. I am a friendly face that strangers ask for directions in the city or at the train station. I’ve been called familiar, kind, friendly and reassuring. 

And yet, a lot of it-my smile, my laugh, my friendly but reserved demeanor-is a front. I have anxiety and depression, but especially social anxiety, and my smile has been my most powerful defense against people discovering this inner truth. It’s hard for people to imagine me doubled over because it feels like there’s an anvil on my chest or imagine me curled in a ball on my bed, my heart beating wildly and tears streaking down my cheeks. In those moments, I’m not smiling. 

In those moments, I feel sick. When I wake up in the morning and I’m so nervous for hours that I feel nauseous and unable to fully pay attention to anything, I feel sick. When I have to drag myself through my day and force a friendly smile on my face, I feel sick. When I have to run into a bathroom to cry and pat cold water under my eyes to bring down the puffiness so people won’t know, I feel sick. It’s called mental illness for a reason. Just because I don’t have a runny nose or a sprained ankle or a bruise or any other symptom that people can see, that doesn’t make it any less severe.

The invisibility of mental illness (and the stigma against admitting having one that still lingers) has subtly forced me to keep it a secret. I struggled with anxiety for thirteen years before realizing I even had anxiety, and another two before I was willing to open up and get help for it. I still feel the stares when I tell people about my anxiety, still feel embarrassed when I have to admit to a friend that I can’t leave my house because I feel like a mess, still feel like if I tell someone I’m mentally ill they will never treat me the same way again. I have worked so hard to render my illness unseen and unspoken about that I unintentionally undermined my ability to cope with and manage it effectively. I’ve made myself sicker because I was worried that people wouldn’t understand what it means to be mentally ill. 

And now that I am more open about it than I have been in the past, I see people look at me and know that they don’t think I’m sick. I look into the eyes of people I consider to be close friends and see them grappling to comprehend on an invisible condition that feeds off of faulty logic. They still use words like “crazy” and “mentally unstable” to describe people like me. Without meaning to, they tell me that they can’t accept me, not all of me at least. Like it or not, convenient or not, my anxiety is something I just have to deal with. I can’t ignore it or avoid it. That just makes it worse. 

These subtle rejections have led me to feel alienated in rooms full of people I know, more so than I already struggle with because of my issues. It’s led to extreme loneliness and the feeling that everyone in my life would be better off without me. It’s led me to cancel plans last minute, cry right before I leave the house and feel like I have to drag myself into parties. These intense feelings usually don’t last long, but when they’re there, they’re unbearable. And for the most part, I deal with my mental illness by myself. I feel like I have to deal with it by myself. And somehow, I manage to keep smiling through it so people don’t realize what’s wrong. 

My smile is my shield. I suffer for what I perceive to be the emotional greater good of the people around me, to keep them out, to keep them from asking me what’s wrong so I don’t break down in front of them. Crying just makes everything freaking awkward. For a philosopher like John Stuart Mills, this would be seen as moral, but there’s nothing noble about it. 

This is what stigma does to me. 

It doesn’t help that psychology today is still lingering with associations of lobotomies, electric shock therapy and institutionalization. After all, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were published in the early 1960s, not that long ago. That was the discussion of mental illness when my grandparents were my age. The idea that people who have manageable mental disorders like depression and anxiety are disturbed and need to be isolated has subtly persisted in the collective consciousness. Improvement has been made, but it is not yet enough. 

By comparison, my reference points about mental illness have been more therapy-positive and treatment-friendly stories like It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini. To say that his book saved my life when I was twelve would be an understatement. At a time in my life when I was recovering from self-harming and felt like no one could ever possibly understand what I was going through, I had Vizzini’s words. His characters-Craig and Noelle in particular-showed me I wasn’t alone. His story made me hold on, keep fighting, get strong enough that I could beat down my issues instead of letting them beat me. Stories have always been my sword.

Recently, I’ve been on a quest for mental health and illness positive stories in young adult fiction. The thing about mental illness is that everyone feels it differently, so my experiences will never overlap one hundred percent with a character’s although some come close. Maguire from Paula Stokes’ recent contemporary release Girl Against the Universe is a personal favorite. The way her character is represented and fights her anxiety to achieve her goals is so inspiring and realistic. I am so happy and relieved that this is the legacy of mental illness that authors are building today, one not based on isolation and fear, but collaboration and acceptance. Some of my other favorite mental health-minded YA books include Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley. These are the stories I am so grateful to have read, because each of them made me realize that my own issues are valid, that my anxiety doesn’t make me less of a person, that things can get better. 

Still, there’s more work that needs to be done. So many mental health stories still use suicide or suicidal thoughts as the basis of their story. While important, I want to see more characters who don’t experience that, but are still struggling. I want to see more books where the main character’s mental illness isn’t the primary conflict in the novel. I want to see a greater diversity of mental illnesses represented in YA-social anxiety disorder (beyond normal levels of shyness or awkwardness), OCD, schizophrenia, dysthymia, personality disorders, etc. I want to see more characters with comorbidities. I want to see books where characters going to therapy or taking meds as a background activity to the more exciting parts of their lives. 

Stories fight stigma and give vulnerable teens-and people in general-the hope and courage they need to keep fighting. In a perfect world, every person with a mental illness would be able to find that resonant story, would be able to find their sword. 


Thank you so, so much for sharing this with us, Taylor! Smiles and stories have been my shields and swords in the past, so I can definitely relate and I feel this <3 And I'm glad stories especially are helping to fight against the stigmas attached to mental illness. I KNOW they've given me hope and courage before, and I hope truly they've done the same for others.

And y'all don't forget to enter the giveaway and be sure to check out Inge'sShannon'sTopaz's, and Erica's blogs for more Shattering Stigmas posts! :)

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