Those words hurt. They scratch at the scars from a time past when I didn’t smile. I know my mom means them as a compliment, as a way of saying, “I’m happy that you’re in a better place than you were before!” But obviously, embedded within those words, is a lurking past, one that’s always threatening to assert its presence, to remind me of a time that I didn’t smile.
Ross Szabo, author of Behind Happy Faces, came to my college to speak about mental health. During his presentation, I found myself becoming more and more withdrawn inside myself. I can’t say that I was surprised; that tends to happen to me when I have to listen to mental health or bullying presentations. All of those presentations seem to just stir up memories from a time when I was haunted with relational aggression issues and borderline clinical depression. So when he addressed the auditorium full of college freshman who really didn’t want to have to sit through another lecture, asking “Why do you think so many people with mental health problems don’t seek help?” I wrestled with myself. Should I answer?
Even after at least a full year released from the psychiatrist, I was still afraid of the “mental illness stigma.” Here I was in this new place trying to make a name for myself, to establish who I am and who I want to be, and in one moment, it could all be gone if people thought that there was something wrong with me. But that right there- that was my answer. People who suffer from mental health issues don’t seek help because they’re afraid of the stigma. And so, my stomach turning and my cheeks burning, I raised my hand and answered, “Because they’re afraid people will look at them as being ‘weak’ or sick.'”
All things considered, I’m pretty open about my past and my mental health. But I never want anyone to look at me like something is wrong with me. Especially since I am so much better now. People with mental illnesses shouldn’t have to feel ashamed. Because they can’t help what they have- it’s not as if they weren’t careful and it’s their fault that they have to deal with it.
I don’t know whether anyone in that auditorium could tell that the reason I raised my hand that day was because I had felt that way in the past and still do now. But when an acquaintance of mine saw me a week or two later and said to me, “Hey, it was really cool what you said at the lecture,” I knew that I was in a place where I was supported. That even if I am scarred by some past mental illness, the people I’m with now love me just the same and aren’t going to judge me for it.
As much of those scars are a part of me, they don’t dictate my future. And my mom is right; it is nice to see me smiling again. I finally look at pictures of myself with my friends and see a genuine smile on my face, one that extends completely to the light in my eyes. And I can say with great certainty that it had been a long time since that was the case.
Take care of yourselves. Risking your mental health to defy the stigma of the world is not worth it. And hopefully you’ll be surprised; there are more people out there who will take care of you than will leave you in the dust.
I can’t wait to see you smiling again.