Thirty-eight years ago, I began recovery from an illness that causes death in many people. It was a problem with my metabolism: my body chemistry could not mix well with the chemicals in a very commonly used ingredient. Through the grace of God, I began a process of recovery that continues to today. Twenty-some years ago I had a blood test that revealed, in one category, levels that were one-third of the lowest level considered to be healthy. I had a chemical imbalance requiring my taking certain medications for the rest of my life. I have been doing so, and the illness is, for the most part, pretty well controlled. Just about a year ago, tests suggested another illness. This one required surgery and there has been an inconsistent recovery, requiring painful follow-up and ongoing medication to minimize its affect.
How do these sentences speak to you: I am sick; I have an illness. I am mentally ill. I have a mental illness. I am a human being; I have a variety of illnesses? Do some of them generate negative feelings? Which seem ok, or even positive? All of them are true about me, but how I think of them makes a strong difference in my attitude toward myself and toward life.
The illness of thirty-eight years ago is alcoholism. Twenty-some years ago I was diagnosed with chronic depression. Last year, it was Barrett’s disease. I react negatively to “I am mentally ill,” but not to “I am physically ill.” One almost connotes permanence; the other, hope for recovery. “I am mentally ill” seems to define me; I”I am physically ill” is merely something about me. So while I do not talk much about any of them, I am most comfortable talking about Barrett’s.
But why should it be that if someone says I look unwell it is easier to say “it’s just the Barrett’s” than to admit “My depression is getting the better of me today?” One word: stigma. We can accept someone with a cold or flu, but have a much harder time dealing with mental and emotional illnesses—our own and that of others. The truth is that illness is illness, but we judge some types acceptable and others not. People get over a cold, but we are yet to have a way for full recovery from mental illnesses. Someone with schizophrenia will always have schizophrenia. A person with chronic alcoholism will never be able to drink successfully. I will always have that and depression.
But what I have learned here, from our many guests and others who have some mental illness, is that while society as a whole might not be comfortable with us or our condition, once disclosed, we can be. So can a caring community. Next time I’m asked if I’m unwell, maybe I’ll be able to say “Oh, it’s just my depression!”