Shara Faith
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The Stigma and the Unattainable Notion of Normal

Life with a mental illness is hard. Life with unreasonable expectations is hard. But it’s possible to make it all easier, so long as you rise above the stigma.

I have a different family dynamic. My brother, whom I love with every ounce of my being but simultaneously get annoyed by, is on the spectrum. The “spectrum” is a tricky thing, because I can’t quite explain what end he’s on, or how far left or right he is. I just know that there’s something slightly off, as there always has been, which leaves me as the normal child. Me—normal—yikes.

This automatically put pressure on me from a young age. I’m the one who has to accomplish what daughters and sons are supposed to accomplish, because my brother simply cannot. I had to be the kid whose art projects my parents showed off, whose talent show videos they played and replayed for company, whose soccer trophies they lined up in the basement, and whose grades and degrees were bragged about amongst other boastful parents. It was my job to make sure they were proud, and growing up, I like to think I managed that. But right around college, things started to change.

I began to feel a heaviness in my mind, like something wasn’t quite right, although oftentimes I didn’t know exactly what that something was. It felt like acid in my stomach, burning and eating away at the emptiness and taking away any feelings of hunger. There were tight knots I couldn’t seem to untangle. I felt like my mind was on fire, overthinking and over analyzing every little, irrelevant thing.

It dawned on me that I was no longer the normal child.

It didn’t take long to figure out. It was anxiety. And the anxiety caused symptoms of depression, and along with that came a flock of other things that made me even more imperfect. At heart, I became a coper, mostly being able to walk around with my wounds safely hidden, storing up my anxious episodes for the weeks off when there was time to have an abbreviated version of a complete breakdown. But in the end, I’d be able to get up and get on with it. But there were always traces left, and people knew something was wrong.

But that negative stigma (emphasis on the word negative) of mental illness caused me to keep it all quiet for way too long… longer than anyone should have to suffer, especially in silence. I eventually, of course, couldn’t hide it anymore… not that I was great at hiding it anyway.

So there I was, 19-years-old, admitting that I couldn’t solve my problems on my own; admitting that I wasn’t the perfect child that made up for my brother’s shortcomings; giving my parents a new truth that neither of their two children were normal. It hurt to admit, because my parents did nothing but love us, provide for us, and support us… and yet, neither of us had much to show for it. Or so I thought.

I assumed that having a lack of mental strength made me faulty, or bad, or unsatisfactory to the world. I supposed that all my issues made me a disgrace to the family, turning me into someone that no one would be proud of. But what would I gain from thinking those thoughts and feeling that way? Nothing. And believing that I was a failure would only turn me into one. It’s all one, big, self-fulfilling prophecy, and I may not have the thickest skin or the easiest days, but I sure wasn’t damaged. And it took me time to realize this. It took being vocal and disregarding the negative stigma. It took my desire to get better surpassing my fear of asking for help.

Mental illness thrives in the dark, and only when you stop hiding it can you start to heal. It’s okay to feel broken—that’s how the light seeps in. And it’s okay to feel damaged—that’s how you create a concrete base to rebuild. You take your pain and make it purposeful. You learn from it and allow it to change you for the better. You refuse to feel shame. I repeat, you refuse to feel shame.

Upon mending, I had to change my perspective on what it means to be broken or damaged. I don’t know if it was the hours of looking myself in the mirror and saying I am strong, and beautiful, and powerful, or if it was my friends and family reaffirming that I am the farthest thing from a misfit. Either way, I realized that I may not have it all together, but I am not a disappointment. I am in control, and that in itself takes me down the right path.

Healing isn’t linear and it certainly isn’t foolproof. Once in a while, some negative thoughts will still creep into my mind. I’ll feel an enormous sense of guilt for not being the easiest daughter. My parents deserve one child who has everything together, I’ll think. I wasn’t the one born with an actual deficit, so what the heck is my excuse? But I think this is something that people with all sorts of mental illnesses feel. They think just because it’s not a tangible, evident-to-an-outsider glitch, it is self-inflicted, or our fault. But it’s not. And it’s not my parents’ fault, either. It’s nobody’s. It’s chemical. It’s biological. It’s just as impartial as a physical ailment. It doesn’t discriminate. It affects all types of people from all different upbringings. It runs the gamut. And I think it affects everyone to some extent, whether they realize it or not. We all just need to take a step back when we start thinking we are less than.

Nobody’s perfect—that’s something I’ve said and written a million times. We are all battling something, or struggling in some way, shape, or form. So forgive me for being like this, but I think I should be. Because if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be human.

So, here I am, still dabbling in the (very improved) anxiety that still resides in my anatomical makeup, and that’s okay. Only when I chose to attack the negative stigma was I able to recognize that there is no such thing as a normal child, and considering that everyone is grappling with something in their heads, I think I am pretty ordinary. And being ordinary when you’re biggest fear is being a failure is, well, extraordinary.

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