Today we have Angelika Rust here, talking about depression, social anxiety, and the stigma of the mentally ill.
I have a slight case of depression and social anxiety. I say slight because I get by without meds, and I never feel the urge to throw myself off a cliff. Doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games, though.
Imagine a nasty cold – runny nose, headache, limbs hurt, you feel tired. Not nice, but not really a reason to stay in bed all the time. You’re not even running a fever, so you might as well go to work. And anyway, a cold usually doesn’t last longer than a week or two. Get over it.
Now imagine the same cold for the rest of your life. Every. Single. Day. And you know you have to live with it, because it can’t be cured. All you can do is, wrap yourself in a warm pullover, drink tea and always have a box of tissues handy, so it won’t get worse.
That’s what it means to live with a mental illness.
I’ve been living with it since my childhood, though it took me a long time to figure out what was wrong with me. I would descend into some dark place, I would cry, be unable to speak, or feel like the entire world detested me.
People would ask me, why?
I never knew. They kept asking, and kept asking until I believed that I needed a reason. So I invented reasons. I wasn’t even consciously aware I was doing it. At one point I got so bad, I developed constant headaches and stomachaches, just so I would always have an excuse. Shaking that habit, finally accepting that, no, you don’t always need a reason for those odd emotions, some things are simply beyond you unless you find a way to cope…that was the hardest thing.
Growing up in a household that still held on to the firm belief that a slap in the face never hurt anyone surely didn’t help. Neither did being the kid that sailed through most everything in school. So many kids around me struggled through exams, why didn’t I? Being used to my own lack of worth – established through the fact that if I deserve to be slapped, I must be worthless – it never occurred to me that those kids might be doing things wrong. No, the one doing everything wrong must have been me. Which caused me to think, if I can’t even manage something as simple as school in the correct way, how can I ever achieve anything? So much came easy to me, everything bored me, and yet, at the same time, everything posed an insurmountable challenge. Small wonder I became a university drop out and it took me years before I even realized what I’m good at.
I hardly talk about it. On the one hand, because I don’t want to bore people and I don’t want to be a burden. Imagine any other incurable disease. Multiple sclerosis, maybe. How are you? Oh, still dying a bit every day. Would you say that? Or would you say, I’m fine, thanks, and you? The other reason I stay quiet is that I tried and failed in the past. You see, I’ve learned to cope. I know my triggers, and I know how to keep functioning regardless. Those who don’t know me probably can’t tell, and those who do probably can’t either, because I haven’t told most of them. Because what happens if you tell people? They’ll look at you like you’re mad. Like you’re a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any given moment. We still have this image in our society of the mad people, shut away for their – or our – safety, hugging themselves as they rock back and forth, banging their heads against a padded wall. Well, I’m not mad. I won’t explode. Which makes it hard for people to believe me. You seem so normal, why tell something like that? Is it to brag or to try to convince people how unique you are?
No. Seriously, there’s nothing special about needing half an hour to decide what to wear to a simple parents evening in school (not because I’m so vain, but because I need to find the right balance between armor and camouflage), or about having to walk the dog through the woods because you can’t stand the thought of having to meet, let alone talk to other dog owners in the park, because every look you get feels like a judgement and you’re such an ugly, stupid failure, or about digging your nails into your palms so you can focus on the pain rather than the thought that you are letting everybody down, that you disgust everybody, that you’re the worst mother on earth…
If I tell you, I do it because I think I can trust you. On those occasions in the past where I tried it, I was rewarded with looks made up of equal parts disbelief and alarm. Which isn’t particularly encouraging. Over the past two years, I found a few people to whom I could openly talk about it, which is the reason why I’m slowly starting to completely open up on the topic. Because it’s high time we remove the stigma, reach out and help each other. Hiding away only fuels the bad emotions.
Angelika Rust was born in Vienna in 1977. These days, she lives in Germany, with her husband, two children, a despotic couple of cats and a hyperactive dog. After having tried almost every possible job from pizza delivery girl to HR consultant, she now makes a living knowing a little English.