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May 2, 2014

In the present tense

General narrative of mental illness leaves little space for stories from those still struggling.

I’m what most people would call an over-sharer. I imagine that this fact is not a very surprising one, given that it comes to you via my ~special journalistic soapbox~ where I get to talk all about my thoughts/feelings/ideas and then see them distributed alongside a picture of my face. But even though I previously thought almost none of my life was off-limits for discussion, I’m discovering that there might in fact be a limit to my openness. Despite my usual willingness to talk about anything and everything going on in my life, there’s something I’m having trouble with. And so, another fact, perhaps more surprising: I recently started seeing a therapist at Student Counseling Services about anxiety.

I’m trying to discuss this without seeming weird about it, without awkwardly saying “therapy” five times in each sentence in an over-enthusiastic effort to make the word sound normal. But I’m struggling. No matter how much I tell myself that lots of people go to therapy, that it’s a good thing I’m doing for myself, that the stigmatized way our society treats mental illness is complete bullshit—I still find myself either not talking about it, or frantically qualifying it when I do.

“But really, everything’s fine!” is what I always feel the need to tell people if the discussion turns to my counseling appointments. It’s not actually fine, though. That’s why I started going in the first place. So I don’t like to talk about it, because although I try to be nonchalant and although my friends have been supportive, I’m always afraid that it’s going to turn into A Conversation—and that people will look at me differently afterward.

I want this to be something I’m able to talk about; I really do. But almost every time I hear others talk about their mental health issues and treatment processes, they do so when the events in question are in the past. I don’t want to discourage this—aside from the fact that seeking treatment for and managing mental illness is a huge accomplishment, it’s important for people to hear that what they’re going through is survivable. And it’s inspiring: Everyone loves a success story.

But I’m not familiar with the other ways of talking about struggling when you’re not done doing so; that is, I don’t know how to broach the subject when I haven’t quite gotten to the happy ending. That’s part of the reason why it took me so long to call Student Counseling in the first place. I was hesitant to ask for help because I thought doing so would place me in the category of “currently ill,” and that wasn’t something I knew how to deal with. It still isn’t. The closest thing we have to a cultural narrative about the “present tense” part of personal struggles and mental illness is the sick fascination with which we follow and find humor in celebrity breakdowns—not the most encouraging model.

If this is how we treat people who are forced to struggle with mental illness in a very public way, the impulse to struggle in private whenever possible is not a surprising one. I understand that not everyone wants to talk about every single thing all the time, and I understand that mental health is a very fraught topic indeed. But our cultural silence about what it looks like to be currently having a rough time—to not yet be better but instead still working on it—only serves to increase the feeling of isolation and shame that make starting on the path to recovery that much harder.

So even though I haven’t figured out how to not be weird when I talk about the fact that yes, I’m currently in the process of sorting out my mental health, and no, I’m not 100 percent “better” yet—whatever that means—I’m going to keep trying to find one. In the meantime, I figure talking about it in a weird way is better than not talking about it all.

Clair Fuller is a second-year in the College majoring in gender and sexuality studies.

 

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