Author: Valery B
We talk about diminishing the stigma around mental health, but what about acknowledging the stigma around asking for help?
At 11-years-old, I had my first, face-to-face encounter with mental health. I do not remember exactly what led me to open the internet and look up symptoms of depression, but there I was, 11-years-old, looking them up as if to decrypt an inconclusive mystery of the anatomy of my brain. Almost all of the online symptoms matched to mine, so I asked my mother if I could see a therapist.
At 11-years-old, I was completely oblivious to the stigma around mental health; the word “therapist” had no negative connotation associated with it. All I could focus on was that I needed help and that needing help was nothing to be ashamed about.
My mother said No to my request to see a therapist, convincing me that whatever psychiatric help I received would go on my permanent record and come into question later in my life: future employers would question my legitimacy as a competent employee, doctors would constantly question my health, medication would turn me into a vegetable, etc.
At 11-years-old, I learned that mental health was bad. I learned that seeking help was wrong. I learned that if I ever was mentally ill, I would never be good enough. Obviously, these things are not true; however, at 11-years-old, they laid the foundations of my mentality towards mental health.
I cannot honestly say that I had depression as a child, as I was never diagnosed; however, having my symptoms tattooed into my subconscious, left unaddressed for many years, backfired at me in high school.
At 15-years-old, I had my second – and, this time, interminable – face-to-face encounter with mental health: I was affected by anorexia and bulimia, with symptoms of binge eating disorder. From the start, I would not admit to there being anything wrong with my mental health. I did not think there was anything wrong! My family was pro-diet and pro-weight-loss, so as I lost weight, they applauded me, showering me with complements about how great and healthy I looked. I let the complements keep my rose-colored glasses on, the glasses that blinded me to the disordered symptoms piling up right in front of me. What started off as caloric restriction morphed into an excruciating cycle of binge-purge-restrict. It was during my first bulimic episode that I identified and admitted to myself that I was ill.
I did not hide my illness from my parents indefinitely: I disclosed the bulimia to my mother about two months after it started. Two months of hiding an illness, however, was enough for me to succumb to it: bulimia had quickly rewired my brain and manifested itself into my life as a seemingly-permanent, ceaseless force.
To my honesty and vulnerability, my mother’s reaction – and, later, my entire family’s reaction – was not what I needed to feel safe and understood. I felt devoured by the guilt and blame and admonishment my family poured over me, questioning how I could be doing this to myself, why I would be doing this to myself.
I cannot blame them for the way they responded, for they did not know better. Like me, they were illiterate to the alphabet of mental health. They knew nothing.
But, regardless of what they did or did not know, their negative responses drove me deeper into the darkness of anorexia and bulimia, and although I tried to combat the illnesses on my own – as my family was still hesitant in getting me professional help –, I landed in the hospital for risk of cardiac arrest and organ failure less than a year after my symptoms began.
Looking back, I truly believe that if my family did not stigmatize mental health the way that they did – and still sometimes do –, my spiraling regression would have been decreased, if not prevented altogether.
Admitting to and asking for help for my mental illnesses are things I struggle with to this day. It seems that the feedback my family gave me at 11-years-old deeply rooted itself into my nature as a developing human being. From the hurtful comments my peers made about my “big” physique to all the times I felt out-casted from my age group during my competitive swimming years, I concealed everything that made me spend countless nights crying into my pillow. My mind was being torched, my body tortured, as I kept my mouth shut about my pain.
I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that asking for help is not wrong; it does not make me weak; it does not make me look bad. Rather, it is a sign of strength, progress and resilience, a symbol of true self-love.
Now, at 18-years-old, I struggle with depression, anxiety, relapses of anorexia and bulimia and symptoms of binge eating disorder. Admittedly, as I write this, I am self-recovering – without a formal treatment or treatment team – from a major relapse of bulimia, accompanied by instances of binge eating disorder.
Although I have not been able to ask for help quite just yet, I know that when I chose to do so, everything will be perfectly OK. I will be loved. I will be supported. I will be enough.
No matter what age you are, no matter what you are struggling with, start the conversation – do not be afraid to ask for help. Asking for help is a beautiful thing and, frankly, will make you stronger, wiser and happier as you take the necessary steps towards a 100%-possible recovery.
– Valery B.