Mental Illness Should Not Be a Secret
Secrets and lies.
That’s how I would describe the beginning of my decades-long battle with mental illness. The year was 1996, I was 17 years old, and my life came to a stand-still because of depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. I had no community to call upon, few friends that knew of my struggles.
Everyone knew something was wrong. I couldn’t keep my outward appearance or drastic personality changes to myself. But mental illness wasn’t something you talked about. Why had I lost so much weight? Why was I in and out of the hospital? Mono was going around our school; that must have been it. Why did I drop out of high school with my straight-A grades and high ACT score? It couldn't be that. I must have graduated early.
Secrets and lies.
I was very sick, with some mystery illness. That’s all anyone needed to know. My family and I told few people of the truth behind the illnesses that had shattered our lives. People didn’t really want to know back then. The burden of mental illness was too much for anyone to bear, least of all the person trying to survive it.
My battle with mental illness continues today, almost 25 years later. Recovery is a non-linear journey for me, although there has undoubtedly been upward motion. I did drop out of high school to focus on recovery, but I also went on to graduate from college. I married the love of my life and we have three beautiful children. I’m active in my church and community. I live a mostly normal, happy life.
“Hi, I’m Sarah, and I have mental illness” isn’t necessarily how I’d introduce myself if we were to meet, but most of my friends and a good deal of my acquaintances know about my struggle with mental illness. Why am I so open about it? What has changed since 1996?
No more secrets. No more lies.
I’ve struggled immensely and worked hard to have the life I have now. My mental illness was often a roadblock in my journey to this life, but it also served as a map to understanding myself and my hopes and dreams. Does it define me? Of course not. But it is part of the definition of me. I am a warrior. I have fought hard battles, and I live the life that I do because of and despite my mental illness. I’m extraordinarily proud of my struggles.
As a presenter for NAMI’s Ending the Silence Program, I now go into middle and high schools and do the one thing I could not do when my journey began. I talk openly, honestly and unashamedly about my struggles and triumphs with mental illness.
No more secrets. No more lies.
I look at the girl I once was, who desperately wanted those around me to understand my struggles, but who was drowned in shame and stigma. I speak for her. I speak for the student who can’t quite put their finger on what’s wrong with them, but knows it is something that needs addressing. I speak for the student who is worried about a friend. I speak for transparency and truth. I speak with pride.
To say it is cathartic to walk into a school and speak openly about mental illness, years after my battle began, would be an understatement. I think back to my high school experience, with all the secrets and lies, and how drastically the course of my life would have been altered if someone had come in and talked to me about mental illness. How the awareness could have prompted me to get help earlier. How breaking down shame and stigma would have allowed me to seek out the support I desperately needed. How I maybe wouldn’t have felt so alone.
I’m Sarah and I have mental illness. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back. No more secrets, no more lies. I am proud of who I am. I’m a wife and a mom. I’m a college graduate. I’ve run a marathon and 10 half marathons. I’ve been hospitalized for mental illness three different times, and to this day, I see a therapist and psychiatrist regularly. I’ll never go off my medication. I have friends who understand and embrace my struggles. They come over and babysit my children and bring my family meals when I’m struggling. They are almost as proud of me as I am of myself.
I wish I could tell my 17-year-old self to lose the secrets and lies — to be honest and open. To take pride in the journey and know that it is in the journey that life is lived. I can’t change the past, but I can move forward with no secrets, no lies, no shame, no stigma.
Sarah Marsh lives in suburban St. Louis with her husband and three children. She has been presenting NAMI Ending the Silence for NAMI St. Louis since January 2019.
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