Since we started working on Subconscious over a year ago, the question “why?” has come up again and again. Our canned response is always some version of how we collectively believed that mental health stigma is a relevant and important issue worth fighting. Satisfied with that obviously hollow answer, we never dug deeper, never spent the time to understand each other’s motivations for dedicating hours each week to this group. Our tacit willingness to live in the blissful ignorance of each other’s mental health backgrounds is a manifestation of the rampant stigma in our society.
Subconscious is built on the belief that the power of personal narratives will humanize mental illness and reduce stigma. We are embarking on this journey by sharing our own stories, and we invite you to share yours.
In my younger days, I never really knew the purpose of her visits – and while I shouldn’t have been, I was always too afraid to ask. She’d stay with us for a few days, and leave again, only to come back a few weeks later, frazzled and dripping in something strangely ominous. She was family and I loved her, but hey, kids know Cruella De Vil vibes when they feel them.
Driving to the airport, our car was silent. Weirdly, she always had a way of sucking up all the words in the air. Before she left, she pulled two silver butterfly clips from her hair. “Don’t lose these,” she said grinning, pushing them into my hand. “Next time I come back, we’ll see if you still have them.”
Eleven-year-old me had two consistent problems in life: losing hair accessories, and recovering every time the rubber bands on my braces broke and pinged me in the face when I opened my mouth too wide (high frequency issue).
The latter was a lost cause, rubber bands are ruthless and my mouth was just too big, but I recognized an opportunity to impress on the first. With determination, I guarded her clips vigilantly and valiantly, clinging onto them with blind loyalty, like Lord Voldemort and his snake, Nagini. I guarded them every time we moved, or took family vacations. I guarded them like a crazy hoarder. I guarded them when I eventually stopped wearing them because they weren’t cool anymore. I guarded them as their paint began to peel, as their claws inherited a brilliant crimson rust, and as I one day packed my bags to leave for college.
I guarded them not knowing that she wouldn’t come back to see me standing proudly with the fruits of my labor, that she had quietly claimed her fate just a few days after we had taken her to the airport, years ago.
Though you can imagine what it feels like to find out you’ve now dedicated the majority of your life to being the warden of two molding rocks, these hair clips signify the deafening silence that surrounds mental health and its victims. They reveal the stunning consequences of stigma that affect millions of households, including mine, and how neglect can limit access to healthcare, resources, and support. They illustrate that the pervasive effects of shame on this underserved population is grossly miscalculated. Most of all, these dusty clips underscore the indelible heartbreak of losing a loved one, and the journey to begin again.
By building open communities, we can begin to scratch the surface, to understand our peers, and do better. We can improve the utilization of treatments, learn how to be resources in recovery, and build resilience with renewed resolve. From here at Subconscious, we hope you and your loved ones find solace and new strength in our stories – we do in yours.
Sitting in my sparsely furnished Berkeley apartment, we quizzed each other on the differences between Broca’s and Wernicke’s aphasia ahead of another dreaded midterm. As usual, the conversation derailed from neuroanatomy to our dreams for the future as we tried to rekindle our motivation during the most tedious hours. Today, however, the usual excitement in his voice was missing. I prodded and coaxed him lightheartedly, inviting him to tell me what was on his mind.
Slowly, as if internally debating each word, he revealed his decision to postpone his medical school applications another year. I couldn’t understand his hesitance. He was a stellar student and accomplished researcher, undoubtedly a competitive candidate for any school. I stubbornly lectured him on the time he would unnecessarily waste, never expecting “Cathy, I have depression” to be his response to my monologue. Helplessness washed over me as I sat silently, unable to find any words and fully conscious that I was letting him down due to my ignorance of what “depression” meant.
Later that night, I laid restlessly in bed, mentally replaying a montage of our years of friendship and trying to understand how I could have been so ignorant of his fight against depression. I owed it to him to learn about this cryptic condition that was shaping a significant part of his life. However, I quickly found that my Google searches led only to words I didn’t understand about diagnoses and prognoses and were missing what I really wanted to know: how I could best be there for my friend.
Subconscious was conceived one year later to fight the alarming silence and lack of understanding that perpetuates mental health stigma. Our team, united by our individual experiences with mental illness, is dedicated to harnessing the power of the Internet to humanize mental health. We hope you will consider joining us in this virtual coalition by sharing your story beside ours.
Until two of my family members suffered from depression, I dismissed the term as a phase or exaggeration. The two were both role models of my childhood, and I looked up to them as the steady hands of the family. However, when they confessed that suicidal thoughts haunted them constantly, making them wake up with resentment towards life, I realized this was not merely a transitional phase of trivial angst. When the people I admired most broke down and revealed their most vulnerable personal elements, I realized depression (and any other mental illness) can happen to anyone.
Regrettably, I took little action during that time. I was simply struck with paralysis as to what to do. I would google “depression” only to get a regurgitated list of medical terms for diagnoses and possible treatments. Overwhelmed with ads popping up for clinical drugs, my google search would only last a minute or two before I decided to retreat from my futile attempt to learn more about the debilitating illness. I did not know anyone to approach. I was afraid that my friends would judge me and my family members, which is the common stigma associated with depression. This bottomless feeling of emptiness wandered on for several years.
As years passed, I am truly grateful that my family members found the right treatment and support to recover from depression. Yes, problem solved, and I could have simply moved on. However, I will never forget feeling directionless and alienated during that tumultuous period. I have realized the value of genuine communication and the need to raise mental health awareness. This serves as the driving force for Subconscious since its inception.
Subconscious encourages open conversation and offers a stigma-free learning experience for all. Regardless of the degree of impact mental health has had on you, we believe every single individual within the community is a stakeholder that possesses the ability to make a significant contribution through their unique experience and perspective. Together, we create a diverse, safe, and conducive space for learning about mental health for one and all.
What does it mean to be normal?
That’s a question I struggled with a lot after firsthand watching bipolar disorder take away the Isabelle I knew and loved, mercilessly replacing her with the shell of a human being.
It all started at the start of my junior year in college. I’ll never forget that seemingly harmless phone call I picked up on a random Sunday afternoon. Her words pierced through me: “Ben, I think I’m going to kill myself.”
I remember thinking – what is the right thing to say?
Isabelle lived in LA, and I felt stunned and helpless at Berkeley. I calmed her down as best I could and asked that if I meant anything to her, that she please, please, please just not do anything until she saw me face to face. To my relief, she agreed, and I booked the first flight available to LA.
After a torturous few hours, I was finally able to see Isabelle and immediately realized she wasn’t her “normal” self. If you can believe it, I could see it in her eyes – they were incredibly black and disturbingly hollow.
Oddly, she wasn’t giving off any of the suicidal signs that I read about during my plane ride. Instead, she seemed intensely dazed and confused. She asked me why I was there and proceeded to give me a hug, her black hollow eyes welling with tears.
In the following weeks, Isabelle visited a mental hospital, took prescribed medication, and spoke regularly to a psychologist. The doctors informed me that Isabelle had bipolar disorder and was likely going through a depressive phase when she had called me. They said that wasn’t uncommon, and in fact, almost “normal” for this disorder.
A year later, Isabelle miraculously recovered with the right support and phased out her medication, something even the doctors were surprised to see. Somehow and thankfully so, she is now back to her “normal” self but the entire situation shook me to my very core.
What does it mean to be normal?
I don’t know. I don’t know what it means to be normal, but what I do know is that everyone should have the ability to feel normal. And what I mean by that is to feel like they belong in this world, even if they have a few quirky traits and aren’t exactly the same as everyone else.
Seeing Isabelle struggle with the stigmas of having bipolar disorder helped me realize that the negative stereotypes surrounding behavioral health disorders are unfair and simply ludicrous. When you see someone with a broken arm, the injury is often talked about and sometimes even enthusiastically discussed; yet, when it comes to a broken mind, the topic is hush-hush and any sort of conversation often falls off a cliff.
We live in a complex, confusing, and difficult world. It’s hard enough to live day by day when you’re at 100% health, and more so when you’re told you’re different and nothing but some unlucky genes set you apart.
I joined Subconscious because I want to help those with behavioral health disorders feel like they belong. I want them to not only have the ability to feel normal, but going one step further, feel empowered and loved for their unique characteristics that make them who they are. The first step towards any solution is having the right conversations, and to that end, we welcome you to join our cause with open arms.
“Why can’t we just go back?”
This was the question I asked my grandpa after my family uprooted and moved across the state. Nearly two decades later, this was the same question my grandpa asked me in his retirement home. Dementia was taking its costly and merciless toll on his mind. I just sat there, inspecting the ever-so-slight tremor in his wrinkled hands.
We all have our own ways with coping with the trauma that accompanies uncontrolled change in our lives. I would frantically try to find a way to negate the change, and “go back” with the false pretense that the trauma never happened. Sure, in my case, hypothetically moving back would have reunited me with the familiar schoolyard chums. However, how would my self deception fare with irreversible trauma and change?
It took me all those years to truly understand that trauma can only be repressed, but never erased. More often than not, there are situations with just no option to “go back”. Lasting reconciliation does not happen by putting trauma under wraps and pretending it does not exist. It starts when we fully embrace all the change agents of trauma and how they irreversibly reorganize elements of our reality.
This idea of embracing trauma should be reflected on how we perceive mental health. Acknowledgement of our wounds is the first stride to ending the stigma behind it. As Ernest Hemmingway once famously wrote “the world breaks everyone and many are strong in the broken places”, we too should recalibrate our perspective and see trauma not as the end but rather as an opportunity for transformation.
Share your perspective and be part of the larger conversation on ending the stigma behind mental health at Subconscious.