Your right to pain

Hugh Laurie is a well-known British actor who has struggled with depression for years. Mr. Laurie played the lead doctor on the USA Network television show House.  He doesn’t like to talk about his depression, not because he is ashamed of it, but because he doesn’t feel that he has the right to complain about his personal situation inasmuch as he has been so successful in his professional life.  Well, Mr. Laurie’s professional success does not have anything to do with his right to complain about his mental health.  Speaking personally, I remember when I went through my first bout with anxiety and depression, I felt that I could not complain either.  I had a wonderful home, husband, and family, and was otherwise very healthy.  I repeated that story to myself over and over.  It didn’t help at all.  I was still depressed.

When my first bout with depression hit, it was during the summer Olympics of 1996.  I remember listening to all the hard-luck stories of the athletes, thinking, “What right did I have to complain?”  These athletes had experienced worse challenges than I was experiencing.  They had been separated from family, suffered debilitating injuries, lost a parent, or lost a sibling.  Over and over I repeated my mantra – “others have it worse – my life is good – others have it worse – my life is good.”  But you know what?  It did not help. What eventually did help was to seek a solution for myself that would enable me to deal with my own situation.  I didn’t need to feel bad that I was feeling bad.  At the same time, I realized that everyone has his or her own challenge, and one’s own challenge is a legitimate source of discomfort for that person.  Everyone has the right to have his/her own pain.  Everyone, rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful, loved or not loved, has a right to feel bad about the difficulty of his/her particular challenge.  What is not acceptable is to do nothing about meeting that challenge, and finding a solution to the pain.

Hugh Laurie could potentially be a lot of help if he shared his story.  People listen to celebrities and take solace in knowing that famous and successful people also suffer human issues just like the rest of us.  The rest of us rationalize that if someone like Hugh Laurie is not immune from depression, then it is okay for us to suffer from depression. Perhaps Mr. Laurie’s candor would encourage other people to seek the help needed for healing and having a better life.

Fear of Stigma

Our world is full of people who face serious challenges every day.  It might be a lump in a breast, one drink too many one time too often, or an addiction to drugs.  It might be depression or an anxiety disorder.  Each of these challenges is an illness, and each is unique unto itself with its own pain.  One thing that all of these challenges have in common is that it requires courage to face them, and strength of character to navigate the path through them.

Recently I heard an interview with an actress who had been diagnosed with a disease twenty years ago, and had kept the diagnosis buried deep within her family.  She said that she was finally ready to publicly acknowledge her illness, and had found the courage to tell the world that she has been battling Multiple Sclerosis.  I was shocked, not because she had MS, but because she had been scared to let that information become public.  In the interview, she said that she had finally found the “courage to come out of the closet” (a term that I use regularly when talking about the stigma attached to having a mental health illness).  What is there about MS that could possibly cause someone to keep it secret?  At first I just didn’t get it, and I spent a long time thinking about her story.  For goodness sakes, MS is an illness that everyone recognizes as an illness.  MS happens to people. People with MS are never told to “get over it” or “ just get on with it.”  MS would never be associated with any form of personal weakness.  Then I realized that she, like so many of us with mental illness, was afraid of people’s reactions.  She was fearful that people’s minds would be closed up, and that their willingness to see her as a productive person would be shut down.  She was afraid her friends would pity her.  Goodbye to the profession she loved.  Goodbye to any sort of normal life.  She felt opportunities for movie roles would disappear.  Directors would be nervous about working with her.  Colleagues might look at her differently.  She was afraid of the stigma that her illness would carry with it. Now, after twenty years of living with this illness, she finally found the courage to “come out of the closet.”  She decided that freeing herself of the weight of her secret was worth the stigma that might result.

When one is battling a disease like cancer, MS, diabetes, a stroke, or one of so many other diseases, a person needs courage and strength to get through the maze of doctors, the swamp of uncertainty, and the wall of pain that accompanies a health crisis.  I never thought “stigma” would be part of the medical picture for a person with a “real” disease, i.e., a disease that everyone accepts “happens to a person.”  I thought that the word “stigma” was saved for people living with a mental health illness, a disease most people think one chooses to have.

I have no idea how this new public revelation has affected this actress professionally.  It might be too soon for her to even know that answer.  What I do know is that the fear of “stigma” seems to be shared by a much broader group of people with illnesses than I had previously understood.  Stigma not only goes hand in hand with a mental illness diagnosis, but it seems to accompany other medical diagnoses as well.  We all have some challenge that requires us to dig deep inside to find that extra amount of energy/strength to own the issue and map out a course to a healthier state.  I am sorry that I became myopic, and I forgot the rest of the world is out there battling challenges.  I will continue to be a passionate advocate for mental health issues, and I will continue to write about and talk about the stigma that is glommed onto mental illness, but I wanted to acknowledge in this blog post that there are many challenges in the world that require enormous courage in order to face the dragon and move forward, through, and beyond.