Standing up to stigma around mental illness and educating people about it is literally what I do for a living, but that doesn’t mean that I know exactly what to say all the time. In fact, I usually really don’t.
Most of the people in my life are not educated enough about the mental health community to know what things are appropriate and/or correct to say and what’s not. They are the people who say that the weather is bipolar and that they’re OCD because messiness upsets them. They are the people who call others crazy without thinking. They are the people who will judge others for erratic and sometimes hurtful behaviour without wondering what that person could be going through.
But they’re still fantastic people, and they love me. I know they love me, so when they say and do those things I am not personally offended. I’ve had friends who have left me in the dust when the shit hit the fan, but no part of me thinks that my new friends would ever do that.
I’d be lying, though, if I said that it didn’t bother me. I still experience a twinge of hurt that my work hasn’t made enough of an impact on them for them to change their habits. And the reality is that as a mental health advocate I feel like it’s my moral duty (even if it’s not my actual job) to help teach others, including my friends, and make them better people, just as they have taught me much over the past couple of years.
Despite that, I almost never say anything. Part of it is because I don’t know what to say. For example, I know why saying that the weather is bipolar is wrong. But when my roommate asked me if her saying that bothered me and I said yes, she asked why and suddenly I had no idea how to explain it. I don’t know how to explain these things to people who know almost nothing about mental health. Most of the people that I encounter online or through work have a pretty good working knowledge of mental illness already. I am used to preaching to the choir.
Mostly, though, it’s because I am afraid of offending them. I’m afraid of being considered annoying. I’m afraid that they’ll think I am judging them. I’m afraid they’ll judge me. I’m afraid they’ll think I’m not grateful for all of the good things they do for me.
Last week Dan was talking about John Nash, who was recently killed in a car accident, and for some reason he thought I didn’t know who John Nash was, so he was telling me about him. John Nash lived with Schizophrenia, but Dan just kept referring to him as crazy (but a genius), possibly because he just didn’t actually know which mental illness it was, or possibly because he thought that ‘crazy’ is an acceptable synonym, which it’s not.
And I said nothing. I stared at him with shocked bug eyes and “Mmhmm”-ed at him in a bitchy tone, trying to get him to recognize his own mistake and correct it, but that was all. Needless to say, he didn’t correct himself.
Dan’s one my best friends, but because he’s also my ex-boyfriend our relationship is fragile. We walk a thin line between saying too much and saying too little and I don’t want to throw us off balance.
On Saturday I had an anxiety attack in a Mountain Equipment Co-op as we were looking at climbing gear, the first one in public in probably about two years. I thought that Dan would know what was going on because he’s seen me have one before, but he didn’t. Which is probably because I never talked about it that first time (because he caused it, and I felt weak and dependent as hell).
When he did realize something was wrong and I had calmed down, he asked me what that was and I told him it was a panic attack. I don’t know why I said that. I knew it wasn’t, at least according to my personal definitions. I’ve had panic attacks before, too, and they were so much worse. This was like Panic Attack Lite. I guess I just wanted to say something that he would understand and I didn’t feel like explaining the difference. I also didn’t fully explain what triggered it (see above image). It’s not that big of a deal, especially since anxiety and panic attacks are similar in nature, but now he has a slightly skewed definition of what panic attacks are. That’s hardly educational or doing my job correctly.
All of this is to say that I need to be better, but it’s also to say that it’s okay if you slip up sometimes, too, as long as you recognize it.
I need to stop being scared of my friends and challenge them when they deserve it. Standing up to someone doesn’t have to mean that you don’t love them. In fact, it usually means that you do, because you think they’re worth the time and effort.
People who are worth keeping around will recognize that.
P.S. – In addition to being inspired by my weekend, this post was also inspired by If You Feel Too Much by Jamie Tworkowski. If You Feel Too Much is only the second book that I’ve finished this year (for fun) so that is a huge honour. Jamie and TWLOHA have been some of my biggest inspirations over the past 7 years and his writing has hugely influenced mine. I was even more inspired by the honesty of his book, especially the pieces in which he talks about criticism and the fact that sometimes he doesn’t have it all together, especially when it comes to practicing what he preaches with his own friends and family. It was really beneficial to read that someone whose career I admire so much feels that way, too. I highly recommend the book, and if you hate reading that’s okay because it’s only 165 pages.
Chelsea Ricchio is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the SPEAK OUT blog. She is also the Communications Manager for Healthy Minds Canada. She graduated from the University of Toronto in 2015 with a BA in English Literature and Book & Media Studies. She was the former president of the student group Active Minds at UofT, which hosts SPEAK OUT events on campus (from which this blog takes its name). She was diagnosed with Dysthymia and Social Anxiety. She is 22 and lives in Toronto with her cat Genie and her roommate.