I can remember thinking about this day since day one. ‘One day it’ll be ten years. One day I’ll be self-injury free for longer than I’ve self-injured.’ I wondered what my identity would be when that became my reality. If I’ve gone longer without self-injury than I’ve self-injured, who will I be? If I’ve been healthy longer than I’ve been sick, where does that leave me?
Ten years of recovery have since passed and questions of identity do plague me.
As a counselor and now psychologist-in-training, I fear revealing my full self to those I spend my days with. Will they think I am unfit to help others? Will they be watching nervously—waiting—for me to break? So much secrecy, and yet, in previous social circles this is how I was known: The Girl Who Got Better™. Here, who am I?
I wonder if being a good counselor means advocating for mental health. And I wonder if advocating for mental health means I need to challenge the stigma in my own circles. I used to think everyone was sick. I grew up sick; grew up spending time in psychiatric hospitals with what felt like my whole town watching and whispering. The day I realized that wasn’t true, suddenly the jokes stung a lot more—the comments that I was “unstable” or would never find someone who would put up with me actually hurt. People saw me as sick, and I was sick.
Who do those people see now?
Usually on anniversaries I think back on my memories from darker days. Today, I find myself thinking about a male technician at one of the hospitals I was sent to as a child. I was so meek; so sheepish; so scared. I begged him to tell me if I was going to have to go to a long-term facility. ‘How many people usually go? I know you don’t know what my treatment team says, but usually? Is it normal?’ I don’t remember what his response was, but I know I wasn’t relieved. Now that I’ve been in his shoes it’s hard not to wonder what he saw. If it’s anything like what I see in my clients, he saw desperation. He saw a young girl whose body was destroying her from the inside out. Her mind was cloudy. She was trapped. The girl was far away and he couldn’t reach her.
Recently, a woman came for an intake. She recounted stories from a lifetime of unimaginable trauma. She pleaded with me, “Please just tell me if I have a chance. If I have a chance—be honest—if I have a chance, I’ll stay. I’ll try. But don’t lie to me. If I don’t have a chance, let me go. I can’t keep doing this.”
I felt tears in my eyes as I paused to collect my thoughts. Who am I to say what anyone’s future holds. Despite what we all hope, we can’t make those guarantees.
“You have a chance,” I said. I hear her voice crack. “I promise. I believe in you. I believe you will get through this. Please don’t give up.”
When I think about the stigma surrounding mental health, I think about how hard it is to describe these moments accurately. I wonder if other counselors can experience these feelings with clients even if they haven’t lived them. I try to think about what it must be like to be a counselor in a hospital when you have never been admitted to one. I wonder if it’s easier to distance yourself from their stories. I wonder if it’s easier to let go of their pain when you have no physical reminder of your own. And I realize, part of my identity rests within the same walls that bear my patients’ art therapy.
So why can’t I be honest with my colleagues and friends? Why can’t I celebrate ten years of being self-injury free with them instead of feeling alienated and confused?
So instead of sharing my recovery with just my colleagues and friends, I’ve chosen to share it with you, too. Because as I make calls to my representatives—pleading with them to keep our health care resources intact—I realize that I am not alone. I am one of many. And the value of mental health treatment does not only allow me to keep my job, but to keep my life.
And I will not let stigma prevent those from getting the help they need. I refuse to let stigma keep me, or you, in the shadows.
We are worthy of hope and help.