“But what I struggle with…” I’d often say, to cautiously steer a conversation towards mental health, as if navigating a social minefield, scared of saying the wrong thing. I always worried that once I’d used a hideous taboo word, like ‘anxiety’ or ‘antidepressants’ that it’d all be over for me. Nobody can go back to before and pretend they never heard you say it. Once you’ve labelled yourself, you’ve done it for life.
Growing up in a society where most people were too quiet on mental health, I never felt I had the opportunity or even the right to talk about it. Awareness was so low I didn’t even know what mental health was, let alone that I was suffering from an illness I had no idea existed. It took a long time for me to be honest with myself about my mental health; and much longer for me to be honest with the people in my life about it.
Nowadays awareness has improved, but we have a much longer way to go with tolerance. There’s still a huge emphasis on ‘crazy’ people; on tragic characters whose main personality trait is a serious mental illness. When I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 19, my friends no longer introduced me as Zoe. I was Zoe; the depressed and anxious one. My illness made me edgy and interesting to people curious about my life, and my medication became a cool accessory. I was not a mysterious Batman villain who just needed saving, I was not a loose cannon and a danger to the outside world, I was still me, just ill. But I felt all of my identity squashed by my diagnoses.
I edged painfully around touchy subjects; wanting to get it off my chest but also not wanting to burden them with too much pity. People judged, avoided, and ridiculed me – but what can I do about it? My illnesses have taught me a lot, and they’ve helped me grow as a person; but they are not me. They’ve held me back, dragged me down, and worn me out. But under all of the scars and coping mechanisms, I am still myself. An illness shouldn’t become a persons entire life or identity, and it’s wrong that someone else should perceive them only as their diagnosis. Beyond our illness, we are whole, unique people, and no amount of intolerance will change that.