don’t feed the beast

August 31, 2012 | 52 Comments

Girl look in disbelief

Since I started taking antidepressants 18 years ago (Pardon? Time is so bizarre.), I’ve talked about it along with my toothpaste brand. It started with my penchant to over-share and morphed into a realization that people feel weird about mental illness, and a desire to help normalize it. I also felt rebellious about it, because damn if I was going to be strangled by depression shame (there are too many other chokeholds on my frontal lobe).

Once I bring up my own dependance on antidepressants, someone inevitably admits, in hushed tones, to their own. And because I realize it’s due to stigma, I am gentle and encouraging, but sometimes I want to yell, “STOP WHISPERING BECAUSE YOU’RE FEEDING THE BEAST.” If you’re ashamed, you’re telling me I need to be ashamed.

If we talk about it casually and without grimace, we’ll teach others to do the same, and, eventually they’ll stop shifting in their seats, while crickets crick. If you suffer from mental illness, the only way it will become okay to talk about is to talk about it. Let’s be brave together.

I had lunch with a friend yesterday who I haven’t seen for 8 years. Six years ago he was slammed with Bipolar 2 and it bulldozed his life. It never occurred to him to hide it. His candor has brought awkward silences and face twitches. It’s become kind of a science experiment for us, an observation of humanity. I am okay with your discomfort at the mention of my mental illness. You don’t have to be ashamed of it; you’ve been taught to tiptoe around depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, multiple personality disorder, etc. It’s not your fault.

Cancer, diabetes, OCD, alcoholism, asthma, arthritis, autism, depression, ADHD, anxiety… these are all things that happen without our permission. Why are some more socially acceptable to talk about? I don’t get it.

Every summer, because of the lack of schedule I have as a free-agent (I’m a teacher), I forget to take my antidepressants for a few days. A few days turn into weeks, and by August I’m so high on sunshine and boob gawking, I’m convinced I’ll never need them again. Late August arrives (i.e. now) and I become weepy and overly introspective and Steve’s all, “Any chance you’re not taking your meds?” Dammit!

I’ve (mostly) accepted my dependance on drugs. Every summer is likely a subconscious test to see if I’m better. Maybe one day I’ll be able to function well without antidepressants, but for now, notsomuch.

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  • Catherine

    I have the double whammy – I’m on antideps, and also a recovering alcoholic. Like you, I’m not the type to be shy about either of them. So conversations with new acquaintances go something like:

    “Can I get you a glass of wine?”
    “No thanks, I don’t drink. Water would be great!”

    Some people, oftentimes people who’ve had experience with others in recovery, will leave it there. But lots of people will say one of the following:

    “Why don’t you drink?”
    “What, never?”
    “How about a beer instead?” (LOL!)

    Now, lots of recovering alcoholics don’t really feel like getting into the knitty gritty with someone they’ve just met, so they might say:

    “Oh, I don’t like the taste.”
    “I’m allergic.”
    “It’s just not for me.”

    But if someone asks me straight out, I say:

    “Because I’m a recovering alcoholic.”

    In America, the first response to that is INEVITABLY:

    “Wow, good for you!” or
    “Great job! How long have you been sober?”

    But in the UK, where people don’t talk about anything personal ON PAINS OF DEATH, the response varies between:

    “Oh gosh, sorry.”
    *averting eyes*
    *shifting uncomfortably*
    *not knowing where to put themselves*
    “That must be…hard?”
    *SUBJECT CHANGE*

    Being me, I quite enjoy scaring the piss out of the Brits, and sometimes do it on purpose with someone who looks particularly English/reserved/repressed. Heh. But generally, once I say something like:

    “No, it’s actually a really good thing. I’m much happier, and I haven’t had a drink in 9 years, and I don’t miss it”

    it breaks the ice and we can talk about it. I feel like I’m performing a public service destigmatising this genetic disease for the UK. :)

    • Shannon

      Ha. I love you. I love your reaction to scare the piss out of ’em. That’s in me, too.

      It’s a crazy, strange world we live in with so much shame tucked away in surprising nooks an crannies. I’m glad you’re brave enough to stomp it out.

      I’m glad you’re you. You is amazing.

  • Eden

    xoxoxo! I have been trying to figure out how to do this better – I tend to joke about my mental illness, which comes pretty easily since OCD is a) often used as a hilarious shorthand anyway and b) actually be pretty hilarious sometimes.

    But on the other hand, I’m not cool with actually making fun of it, and I worry that the jokes come off as self-deprecation or shame. And while it’s funny, it’s also actually the case that I have a panic attack if I don’t load the dishwasher myself, and that if you put a bigger thing on top of a smaller thing I will be in genuine distress unless I fix it, and a million other little things. And it’s also the case that without my meds, there was nothing hilarious about the constant horror of potential disaster I felt. So I dunno. I don’t want to be a jerk to other people with mental illnesses, but it also feels good and appropriate to point out that my *treated* OCD is mostly fine and often totally absurd.

    Etcetera etcetera!

    • Shannon

      Eden, I can see how that would be a hard balance to manage. I think you handle it well and with thoughtfulness. And sometimes it takes just the right amount of lightheartedness to deflate a thing of its tension and taboo.

      I think the more we’re open about these things, the more opportunity we’ll have for extended conversations that relay all of what you just did.

      And sometimes we’re just going to screw up in our openness, and that’s okay, too.

  • Jocelyn

    Oh gosh, I’m sooo happy I met you via Steve’s TED talk, and now through your blog. Right, say it! Don’t whisper!! It’s not contagious. LETZBEFRIENDSKAYTHX.

    • Shannon

      You found me through Steve’s TED talk? He mentioned me? I had no idea.

      • Jocelyn

        No no no. I followed Steve on twitter after seeing hisTed talk, and followed your twitter feed yadayadayada BE MY BFF OKAY.

        • Shannon

          Ah. Makes sense. OKAY TO BFFS. :)

  • Gabrielle Valentine

    I too have been on anti depressants for years. At least 10 now maybe longer. Wellbutrin didn’t seem to be doing much after the last three years, I recently stopped them and rather than go back on something new just see how it went for a while. The last few weeks went okay this week I’ve noticed being more down and anxious. So we’ll see how it goes. But definitely people should talk about these things more often. Love your blog, also. : )

    • Shannon

      Thanks for saying so! It’s tricky finding the right meds. Mine are wellbutrin and they work well for me.

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