What Life is Like: An Interview with a Survivor
Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor
The 2016 theme for National Mental Health Awareness Month is Life with a Mental Illness. The goal is to encourage those with mental health conditions to share their experiences. #mentalillnessfeelslike is the social media campaign by which people can tweet or link to videos, raising their voices and coming out of the shadows. In his Presidential Proclamation President Obama states:
In honor of the theme, and to express our support for our friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors who live courageously every day fighting the good fight of wellness, Ourselves | Black reached out to a mental health survivor to hear a first-hand account of a life with mental illness. Initials instead of a name are used to honor the progression of this survivor’s journey as comfort in telling the story increases.
OB: Thanks so much for agreeing to share your thoughts about living with a mental illness. Did you initially have reservations?
TM: Yes, of course. I thought about it for awhile. Went back and forth. I knew that I could do this without saying who I am, but it still feels a little scary.
OB: So what made you finally agree to do it?
TM: Figuring what do I have to lose? Not saying anything I don’t think is negative, I just felt like maybe I don’t have to make a big deal out of it. Maybe someone could be helped.
OB: Do you think you’ve had a mental health condition for a long period of time, or is it something more recent?
TM: I think it’s been around a long time. That’s part of how it goes. I knew when I was a teenager that I felt depressed a lot. It wasn’t ever really dramatic, just a constant low-level passiveness that I didn’t understand at the time. I just knew that I went along a lot because I didn’t want or think to exert the energy to resist situations. Now I feel like the passiveness was because of a kind of ‘what does it matter’ viewpoint. Plus back then, people didn’t really talk about mental illness per se, so I didn’t have a good reference point.
OB: Did you think there was something that needed attention, or did you just consider it part of your personality?
TM: I just thought it was my personality. I still think that’s partially true.
OB: Have you ever been officially diagnosed with a specific mental health condition?
TM: Yes, at one point I was diagnosed with clinical depression.
OB: Was that a hard experience?
TM: I felt like I already knew the ‘depression’ part, they just added the ‘clinical’ to it. But as far as my day to day life, I didn’t think it made that big of a difference. I didn’t think it made me any more depressed because they put the word clinical in front of it. But at the time of the diagnosis, I knew that things had gotten pretty serious. I was suicidal and just not wanting to be around any more. Maybe a better way of saying it is that I became neutral about being alive.
OB: Did you feel any shame or embarrassment?
TM: A little but not too much. Since there wasn’t much acknowledgment of those kinds of conditions, and most people just described other people by how they behaved, there wasn’t really a need to feel ashamed of anything. Then again, maybe I just didn’t know any better!
OB: Were you prescribed medication, and if so, how did you feel about it?
TM: No, I wasn’t put on medication.
OB: Fast forwarding to 2016 and the explosion of the visibility of mental health, does this impact what life is like for you?
TM: I think it’s great to see so many being encouraged to talk about their conditions and what their experiences are. But really, I still feel the struggle the same way. I still feel odd some days because I know I’m having trouble concentrating, or I feel myself being very irritated and angry. Now that I’m older, I also have become more aware of what seems to cause the start of a cycle of depression. I’ve also noticed that in the past few years, anxiety has really increased. That bothers me because I don’t want to have a bunch of conditions. That’s part of how I need to grow more, not be so critical of myself. There are reasons why I’m more anxious, but I still don’t necessarily want to just be ok with it.
OB: Overall, how do you view things now? Do you feel hopeful?
TM: I feel committed to continuing to get better, more whole. That’s my goal.
As Mental Health Awareness Month winds down, it’s a good time to encourage and support those you know who are living with a mental health condition or substance use disorder. Sometimes the realities of fear, fatigue, and struggle overshadow the need for understanding, patience, and compassion. Let’s all try a little tenderness.