Glorifying mental illness

December Burgess

When I was in grade nine, I had my very first anxiety attack.

A coil of panic squeezed my chest so hard  I thought it would burst. Nausea churned within me. I felt hot and light, but also chilled and heavy.

My head was floating in space, but traveled way too close to the blistering sun. I didn’t see the people around me as anything more than shapes and obstacles. Sound appeared distorted.

At the same time, my body was being dipped in freezing liquid.

I was a sponge absorbing the tears of the ocean; I got heavier with every moment and eventually sunk down under.

Then I was drowning and thrashing. I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t know why. Time seemed to slow but the world tilted with speed and strength.

And all I could think was: ‘I don’t want to die.’

It makes me laugh in an almost bitter way now that I’m older. It’s funny, but it also stings a bit of my soul.

I obviously didn’t die. My panic didn’t harm me in any way. I’m still alive and well. Yet, I think about that day sometimes.

Not sometimes. All the time. Every time I have another attack.

I think about it because I always have the same thought in the midst of it. “I don’t want to die.”

Rationally, my brain tells me I’m not going to die because I have to do a presentation in front of my classmates the next morning. Rationally, my brain tells me I’m not going to die because a person touched my arm without asking first. Rationally, my brain tells me I’m not going to die because I didn’t recognize that girl from school at the grocery store.

Despite the small reassurances, I tell myself, it’s always the first thing I think when I’m spiraling.

It’s telling, I think. I never really thought that I was scared of death. I still don’t, actually.

I suppose my thoughts should change from “I don’t want to die” to “I don’t want to die like this.” I can’t imagine a worse death than going out in the thrall of fear.

Now, whenever I talk about my continuous battle with anxiety, I try to stay as blunt as possible. I was taught in school that mental illness is stigmatized and to me, this meant that I should open dialogue in an attempt to destigmatize it.

My teachers were right, in a way, about mental illness being stigmatized. The moment I started seeing a school counselor, my thoughts were constantly pleading for my friends to not think I’m crazy. Or unstable.

I wanted them to know I was the same – just with the added effect that I was starting to understand how to stifle anxiety attacks and deal with my fear.

I was lucky in that my friends and family were very supportive, though I still maintain my mom didn’t really believe me until she saw me break down, and I had a great many ears to chat to had I needed it.

I also had online support. I used to be active on Tumblr and followed many mental health and meditation blogs. Inwardly, I am a big hippy.

This brings me to my topic: social media and mental illness.

This blog should really be going under the “What’s my beef” column because this topic truly burns me.

I recently logged onto my Tumblr – for old times’ sake and maybe a laugh – and found that quite a few of the blogs I used to enjoy were engaging in behaviour that I found a little concerning.

They were talking about mental health and suicide, but not in a way that discussed it objectively. They were romanticising it.

Now, I would like to take a moment to emphasize that mental illness should be talked about. I encourage having open discussions about triggers and symptoms. I like hearing that people are tearing down those walls of hatred and fear to find a system of support.

I don’t like seeing young men and women wanting to be mentally ill because it would make them important. It would make them different. It would make them desirable.

I’m sure you’ve all come across media like this. The ones where tortured souls meet one another, but can only truly connect once they reach their definite and inevitable end.

Like Romeo and Juliet  (though that play was meant to be a storm of satirical bull crap; bless William Shakespeare’s heart) except with cell phones and more misery.

Then, there’s the black and white photos people post of their self-harm, made to look artistic and desirable.

Or there are the posts where people flaunt their mental illness and use the “be who you are” filter to make their illness a lifestyle instead of a problem.

I saw a photo – can’t post it because it’s subject to copyright – of a woman’s bare stomach and chest. You could see all of her ribs, and she was as thin as a stick.

The caption was: Call it sickness. Call it madness. Call it obsession. I don’t care! I call it perfection. While I am all about body positivity, the photograph and its caption made my stomach churn.

I went down that online rabbit hole and made my way to the website it was from. It ended up being an annotated bibliography on the concept of a pro-ana [anorexic] lifestyle.

I did some research and found there is a large online community that lives the above lifestyle and supports one another in their efforts to not eat.

These groups are not only talking about their mental illness, but they are actively promoting it.

Now, that’s an extreme example of a problem that is normally on a far smaller scale.

There is a Youtuber named Dodie Clark that recently came under fire because her audience thought she was oversharing her struggles with depersonalization.

On the surface, Clark didn’t seem to be doing anything overtly harmful. She was simply talking about her experiences on an online platform.

Over time though, her viewers commented that they had to stop following her because of how this oversaturation of negativity was affecting them.

She posted two videos (am I oversharingggg too much and follow up) with both her thoughts and her apologies to her viewers.

Clark said that she was still learning how to walk the fine line between oversharing and sharing. And that she didn’t mean to portray her mental illness in a way that could romanticise it.

Celebrities and online personalities are hard offenders of oversharing and incidental promotion. The majority of times, it pans out the same way that it did with Clark.

She obviously did not mean to harm or trigger her audience in any way, nor did she want them to wish her problems on themselves. It is because she is in the spotlight and people look up to her that this happened.

They want to be like her – mental illness and all.

So where’s the line? How do we as a society distinguish between sharing, oversharing and promotion? How do we destigmatize a subject without subjecting it to glorification and glamorization?

These are wonderful, weighted and complicated questions that I think we all should be asking.

I’d like to say that I have an answer to it, but unfortunately, I do not. I think that a good start is to raise these questions in everyday life and try to change our way of thinking.

Over time, we’ve begun to normalize some of the behaviours that can be rather damaging. People self-diagnose, make light of and desire mental illness.

Next time you see a quiz on what mental illness you may have on Facebook, acknowledge it. You don’t have to police people who engage in these quizzes, but think about it.

Acknowledge that, yes, this is glorifying mental illness. We shouldn’t do that. The more aware we are as people, the more aware we become as a society.

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