On Mental Health Stigma
One thing I shared with my wife Rachel about a year into our relationship was the time I suffered a nervous breakdown in graduate school. It would be an important moment in any relationship because I shared the time in my life when I was most vulnerable and at my weakest point. Did I technically suffer a nervous breakdown? I’m not sure, all I remember is the turning point came when I drove home late one night, collapsed on my kitchen floor and started crying uncontrollably. Up to that point, I had developed a quasi-schizophrenic outlook on life and could no longer bear the weight of the world-view I constructed. In psychological terms, my conscious self could no longer handle the subconscious content coming forth.
In some ways I blame the state of Texas. In other ways, I blame myself. I guess going from the state of Washington to graduate school in a college town north of Dallas was too much culture shock for me. It didn’t help I had social anxiety issues that surfaced during my early college years, later resulting in depression. By the time I got to Texas, I just wasn’t able to adapt to a new school, new friends, and a totally new Texas way of life.
During that time period in my life I remember keeping a journal. I remember writing about new meanings of different colors and numbers, or at least new ways I interpreted them. For example, I remember sometimes wearing red shirts to signify I was wounded or bleeding. I felt my soul was bleeding or perhaps that I was a wounded angel. I remember writing about how I felt like people were out to get me. Usually this feeling coincided for some reason with when I drove on the highway or drove late at night. I remember the strange feeling I got after attending a church for several months that myself and another trumpet player attended. Not long after sending a bizarre letter to the church saying I could no longer attend, the other trumpet player got cancer and ended up passing away within a year or so.
Other things that happened I don’t remember well because I think I burned the journal out of shame. It was a period in my life (I was 24 years old at the time) when my brain tried to find a shortcut or figure out how life worked. When it all became too much for me to handle, I stopped. I vowed to never go down that path again. I never told anybody my thoughts because I knew they sounded crazy. I was living an intense schizophrenic reality as a sort of life experiment, and that could only last so long.
One unfortunate side effect from that period and a feeling I have probably buried is the shame and guilt that went along with all of the “crazy” thoughts I had. Due to that guilt, I repressed or tried to forget much of that time period in my life. I have never had problems with mental illness or schizophrenia since that time despite bouts of depression, but I bet there are issues and feelings that are still affecting me today in ways that I’m not conscious of. In terms of the treatment I received while in graduate school, I just remember counseling and anti-depressant medication. I don’t even remember bringing up any of my thoughts to anyone else because I knew how crazy it would make me seem. There was also the shame.
Upon hearing my story about this turbulent time in my life, I recall Rachel being concerned that I could possibly have a similar response in the future to a new situation. I reassured her I was more mature and knew better than to put myself in that situation again. After all, I’d moved to Chicago and Spain — life situations that were all together more tenuous than moving to Texas, and I had no issues.
It was nice that we could bond over our experiences with anti-depressants since Rachel had gone through similar problems with depression while in school. Rachel and I also initially bonded over my interest in dreams and famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. When we first started dating I was reading a lot of books about Jung, dreams, and his ideas of the subconscious. One of our first long conversations we had at a bar was a conversation about dreams and all the different meanings of symbols. It intrigued her and she was interested in figuring some things out about her own subconscious.
In the beginning, I remember I could help her a little and talk about things she dreamed about. But over time, I stopped reading books about Jung and the subconscious. Life started demanding more from me and I didn’t have time. When Rachel kept asking me about her dreams and what things meant, it became harder to answer or give her insight. I wanted to be able to, but it was above my expertise.
After awhile, I gave her the books by Jungian scholar James Hall and had her read the passage that might relate to her dreams. After awhile, I got annoyed because I couldn’t answer her questions. After awhile, she stopped asking. She needed her own Jungian analyst, but I didn’t even have a degree in psychology — I was just an armchair psychologist. I wish I could have helped more. My wife suffered from an undiagnosed borderline personality disorder (BPD) and died from suicide after our fourth year of marriage. I now realize I fell into the trap of having a “savior complex” (also known as “rescue fantasy”), the very thing psychologists and therapists are told to watch out for when they are in training. I wanted to help her, but didn’t know the best way how. Some people are difficult to help, and people with BPD, dangerously so.
During the beginning of our relationship, Rachel and I were at places in our life where we didn’t want to continue taking anti-depressants, nor did we feel like it was necessary. We each knew the effects of taking medication like that and understood we were each able to deal with life in a more mature, grounded way. Mental health at that time still had a stigma and neither of us wanted to be seen as “crazy”. The shame was with us both.
The reason why the mental health stigma overshadowed our lives was because I knew at least I was ashamed of it. I was ashamed my wife continued to have issues, ashamed that I couldn’t figure life out, ashamed things weren’t easier. As a result of the shame, I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone outside our marriage. I thought we were supposed to manage it by ourselves.
Granted, my wife got help when she started to have therapy sessions in 2014, not long after we got married. I was obviously fine with that and supported her decision since my belief is that everyone should have a therapist if they can afford it. We also went to marriage counseling prior to being married.
However, in our entire relationship, the issues she had and conversely that we were having, were never something we talked about with family and friends. Like our previous issues in school, I thought mental health issues were something you endured and then got over — things you dealt with yourself and then moved on. Consequently, when all the warning signs were going off with Rachel during that summer with all the rain, I still thought we could manage it. We were again in marriage counseling and talking to a therapist that helped us with our communication problems. In addition, Rachel saw her own therapist. Rachel told me that both therapy sessions weren’t enough however. She also told me one time in a moment of weakness she might need to be hospitalized. I think the guilt and shame kept us from acting. Nobody wants to admit defeat, even when life has seemingly won and is kicking you while you’re down.
Part of the mental health stigma is also fear of the unknown. One keeps their distance from what is unpredictable or unsafe and mental illness can create a divide where people run away instead of confronting what is unknown. That’s another reason we didn’t seek immediate hospitalization. We were used to running away from the instability and chaos.
The insidious way the stigma affected our relationship was that in our relationship cycle of fights I mentioned before, whenever Rachel acted out of anger and showed signs of BPD, I would later keep my distance. My natural inclination instead of showing her more love and affection was to show less. I needed time to recover and feel safe myself. From a book by an increasingly famous London psychologist named Dr. Julia Shaw entitled Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side, she recounts studies that prove people keep their distance, socially as well as physically, from people with mental illness. She states that as a result of this dismissiveness and because of how others treat them, mentally ill people suffer from increased anxiety, stress, and lower quality of life. Even though I never admitted it to myself, I think I subconsciously knew Rachel was mentally ill. In a way, her condition exploited my weakness for not confronting conflict. If we had greater knowledge about BPD and the effects of mental health and the mental health stigma, I know we would have known what to do that summer. We just didn’t.
Duncan, G. (2019). On Mental Health Stigma. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 6, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/on-mental-health-stigma/