What Carrie Fisher taught me about normalizing mental illness

CoffeeCatDogKid | What Carrie Fisher taught me about normalizing mental illnessCarrie Fisher died today. She was a hero of normalizing mental illness, in a society that otherwise stigmatizes it—to the point that many people subconsciously, and even consciously, opt against treatment when we see ourselves going off the rails.

In honor of her memory, I want to share my own story.

I find myself at an interesting intersection of my life—the close friends I have now aren’t the same friends I had five years ago. I often joke with my wife that if the friends I have today knew the me from five years ago, they’d want to know what the hell happened to me.

Five years ago I was a social butterfly. I was the happy-go-lucky, carefree young man next door, exploring the world and following his dreams. Devoted to his Mormon ideologies, the organizer of social activities, the player of games, the center of attention, the boy with the smile, the guy you could lean on, and always the person you thought just had it made. He had great grades and an impressive resume of undergraduate research and grants, and he was on track to do big things in academia.

But the truth isn’t always what we see. The truth is that I was crumbling on the inside.

Today I avoid social events. I avoid celebrating my birthday, receiving gifts, or relishing in my successes. Just today I won a pretty prestigious advising award, and I squirmed at the idea of telling anybody. I find no enjoyment in things I used to spend hours doing: reading, running, learning. I shudder at the thought of any attention being thrown my way, my heart races in fear of organizing activities with friends and family, and when I do go to family gatherings, I like to find myself a nice, quiet corner, and give my attention to my shiny iPhone—not because I don’t like who I’m with, but because that’s how I cope. It’s how I get through the day.

I didn’t crumble for any particular reason; there wasn’t a single devastating event in my life that triggered some sort of emotional collapse. I just didn’t cope with my changing circumstances, and this struggle began to impact my relationships. When I married, I struggled to engage and fit in with my new family. I cut myself off from old friends. I dropped out of graduate school when I felt like I couldn’t live up to the expectations people had for me. I didn’t cry, I didn’t scream. I just hid, deep down inside of myself. I created a new me—a me that was apathetic to the world, a me that could deal with any of the shit that came my way because I had learned to just not care.

And this December it all came falling down. Finding me curled up in the fetal position on our awful linoleum bathroom floor, my wife secured our baby girl in her crib, got on her knees, and just held me.

And I cried like a baby.

Enough was enough and I needed help. That was an incredibly hard step to take—we don’t talk about mental illness enough. We stigmatize it and we make people think they’re weak if they can’t just cope.

I left the doctor’s office with a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I got a prescription for some medication and a referral for a psychologist.

Wow. A true mental f*** up. Right?

At least, that’s what I thought to myself. How embarrassing, I can’t tell anybody this. And it’s hard. Every day is a struggle. When people ask how you’re doing, you’re expected to say “Oh, good, thanks, and yourself?” because if you tell them you’re a melting, hot mess people look at you funny.

But right now, that’s where I’m at. I can’t help but catastrophize everything: my house is falling down, we’re gonna lose all our money on our resale, I’m failing at school because I got an A-, I’ve settled for a career I don’t even know I want, I’m never going to love my child, I don’t know who I am or what I believe or what I desire.

So that’s that. I don’t have any easy answers. But talking about it helps me normalize things; it’s cathartic in a way.

Also, if you’re out there and you’ve been struggling but you don’t have anybody to talk to, you can talk to me. I don’t have any great words of advice that’ll make it all better, but sometimes it’s good to have another person you feel safe being vulnerable with.

Let’s stop stigmatizing mental illness. Let’s normalize it. Some people have diabetes, or broken bones, or other physical ailments. Some people have anxiety, depression, and OCD—just because there aren’t any bruises or cuts, doesn’t mean it isn’t an incredibly painful struggle.

—Alec

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