The Shame of Stigma

I don’t know when or why it started. Only that it did. What I do recall is the day I realised it was creeping into my life, slowly but surely, interfering with every day interactions. On the 12th of July, I had a misunderstanding with my sister who had recently received devastating news. It was silly, but quickly blew out of proportion. My mind catastrophized the situation. What had happened? What had I done? What kind of person was I to cause her more pain? Were we ok? That’s when I felt it. My stomach became heavy and uneasy. My throat and chest felt like they were being squeezed by a giant hand, each breath becoming shallower and increasingly difficult to take. I found myself holding my breath, my heart racing. Anxiety.

My response was to flee. I quit all social media, deleting apps from my phone. I turned off my notifications. I thought that if I didn’t put myself in ambiguous situations (social media) where words and ideas could be misconstrued, I could protect myself and prevent the problem from becoming worse. I became a social recluse, if that’s a thing. I tried to ignore it. I even chanted a little mantra when in the throes of an attack. “It’s all in my head. It’s all in my head. There’s nothing wrong. You’re being ridiculous.” I thought it was a phase. That I’d just get over it. I’d never had anxiety in the past, no more than the usual pre-exam jitters. My family had told me my whole life that I was the easy going one, I’d never get an ulcer. So what happened? Ignoring it didn’t work. My attacks went from weekly, to bi-weekly, to daily until I had a constant undercurrent of anxiety. I felt physically ill all the time. I couldn’t keep going like this. I told my husband. He hadn’t noticed. Anxiety is silent, like drowning. You fight for each breath. Together we decided I should go and see a GP.

“Anxiety and mild depression,” the GP explained. He talked about medications and various techniques I could use. He organized a mental health care plan. I made my first appointment with a psychologist. Initially I felt immense relief that I was doing something. That I’d had the courage to take that first step. It waned, as my psychologist said it would. But this time I knew what to do, how to respond, how to survive. I told my sister what was going on and a couple of close friends. I even shared my experience in a social media group. Sharing in a large group might sound courageous, but for me, it wasn’t. I didn’t know them. I wasn’t truly being vulnerable. I was just another name on the page.

I spoke to my Mum on several occasions. I had ample opportunity to bring it up. I wanted to. I couldn’t. My aunty had been diagnosed with anxiety several years prior and I’d often heard Mum & Dad discussing it. According to my father at least, it was all in her head. She was her own worst enemy. She needed to get over it. Whenever she or my Nan brought up her anxiety and why she didn’t have ‘x’ job anymore or had withdrawn from attending ‘y’, there’d be eye rolls, snorts of derision and comments about how she was making it worse for herself. Maybe she was. I didn’t know any better at the time. I didn’t know what anxiety was.

Now I do. And I’m anxious. Anxious of what others will think of me. Will my parents talk about me behind my back? Will they start saying things like, “Ah, it all makes sense now. She was never very good at ‘x’.” Maybe I’d get ‘pity eyes’. Would they view me as less of a person? Based on my experience with my aunty, most assuredly. I haven’t mentioned a thing to my in-laws either. I’ve always felt inadequate in their presence. I didn’t have as many kids as they did, and they managed ‘x, y & z’ with flying colours. Why isn’t my house tidy? Why aren’t my kids sleeping through? “Oh, I know,” they’ll say. “She has anxiety. I always thought there was something going on. It explains why she couldn’t keep up.” And then they’ll think of my husband, the poor blighter who has to carry the family on his own while working a full-time job. Because I can’t possibly do what a wife ‘needs’ to do for her husband. I’m damaged.

I know there’s stigma associated with Mental Health. It isn’t seen the same way a broken bone is. It’s like you’ve been lobotomized. You’re placated and viewed with pity because you ‘aren’t all there.’ Maybe I’m over dramatizing things. Maybe both families would be accepting and supportive. Maybe no one would pity me or talk about me in hushed tones behind my back. Maybe it’s all in my head.


Love from Aubyn Rey