I was that child who was too nervous to go to classmates’ parties without my mom and the thought of trying literally anything new paralysed me with fear. From about 9 years old, I’d come up with ways of getting myself out of situations that made me uncomfortable. For example, if I rubbed my nose long and hard enough, it would inevitably bleed and the teacher would send me home from school or a parent would call my mom to come fetch me from a play-date. My anxiety often made me physically ill, but I didn’t mind this; it was just another seemingly legitimate excuse and means of escape. This all peaked at the beginning of high school, around the age of 14, after years of seeing school counsellors, therapists and life coaches. My anxiety took over my body and entire way of being in such a way that just leaving my home became an absolutely dreaded task. I could never manage to find a way of explaining this feeling to anyone, and so the inherent loneliness set in and I fell into a state of utter depression. I remember walking across the road towards school and praying that a car would hit me, or lying in bed at night hoping that I might be killed in an armed-robbery-gone-wrong situation. I genuinely felt that I wasn’t “brave” enough to do the deed myself. Luckily, when I was 15 my mom took me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with extreme depression and anxiety and prescribed Zoloft 50mg antidepressants. At 17, we decided that I had “healed”, I was “all-fixed up” and no longer needed to rely on the pills. After about 3 months I fell straight back into the dark hole of my old ways. I immediately went back on to medication and I’ve never looked back. I’ve never revealed these dark parts of myself to anyone except my psychiatrist, so why now? And why publish this on a public blog for all the world (although more likely just my single follower) to see? Because I believe it’s time to #EndTheStigma surrounding mental illness.
In South Africa, one third of the population will suffer from mental illness within their lifetime, yet 75% of these people will never receive any kind of help. Yes, a large portion of this is due to a lack of government funding and infrastructure, but the stigma surrounding mental illness also poses a major threat. Cassey Chambers, Operations director at SADAG (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group), explains that “because there is often an absence of physical symptoms with mental illness, it is considered ‘not real’, a ‘figment of the imagination’.” But even closer to home for me and my peers, is the looming threat of mental illness in the ever-stressful environment that is university. In such an environment, it has become more important than ever to #EndTheStigma by owning our mental illnesses and in the process, helping those who have had similar experiences and enlightening those who have not.
I spoke to Robyn, a close friend of mine who is comfortable discussing her struggle with mental illness. She inspires me every day with her unapologetic ability to be completely and unashamedly herself. We met up for the interview in a secluded spot that I specifically selected based on its quiet locale, but Robyn asked if we could go and sit on a square in the middle of Jammie Plaza. “I have to be around people all the time,” she tells me, “people are like my lifeblood, if you could say that. But it’s almost a dependence on people because if I’m not around people for the majority of my day I struggle quite a lot. I struggle with being completely inside my head all the time because I get in there and I don’t leave.”
For about two and a half years, starting in grade 11, Robyn suffered from an eating disorder which turned into what she describes as “full-blown anorexia”. After going into treatment, followed by an out-patient recovery program and two years of therapy, Robyn was able to recover. “I recovered quite quickly from it”, she says, “but as I sort of started internalising my fear and anxiety, I realised that actually my food problem was an externalisation of my anxiety that I had been feeling every day, all the time, since I was little. And when it got out of control, I didn’t know how to deal with it so I externalised it and placed it outside of my body by putting control onto food.”
Since then, Robyn has developed panic disorder and generalised anxiety disorder, as diagnosed by her psychiatrist. Without the reliance on food to externalise her anxiety, it all became very insular. She then started to experience extreme panic attacks. “I’d have panic attacks almost every second day and they were very bad. I’d hit myself a lot and I’d run; I’d do really strange things. I’d, like, try to squeeze the panic out of my body.”
“The shit thing about panic attacks is that they are the most terrifying experience I’ve ever gone through. If I had to describe it, it’s very visceral and physical but the only outcome when you are in that space is death. You feel like you are going to die. You feel like your heart’s beating too fast, like your brain is not receiving enough oxygen because you can’t breathe fast enough, like your legs don’t work and your arms start to tingle. You’re completely shaking and you feel like you’re going to die. The only sort of end solution is like, ‘oh fuck, this is the end, I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this’.”
Robyn believes that it is the very labelling of mental “disorders” that is in itself stigmatising. “Because disorder means that it goes against the natural way of things happening, and there is no natural way of things happening. Things just happen in everyone’s brains the way that they happen.”
So, how exactly do we combat the stigma surrounding mental illness? According to Robyn, the way to normalise it is simply by saying “Yes, I have panic disorder; I have anxiety disorder. Yes, I take meds and I’m actually a fully functioning human being. I’m not ashamed.”