Mental Illness is not Black and White

My name is Stella Ducklow. I am a photographer, an art geek, and an activist. I am also a mental health advocate; I have been doing public speaking about living with the symptoms and stigma related to my mental health diagnosis for the past eight years.

When you do first voice speaking about mental illness there is a certain story arc you are expected to follow. This is not a spoken agreement, but a silent expectation that has been reinforced by a worn out dialogue deeming people like me ‘brave’ and ‘inspiring’ for simply trying to speak our truth. The story arc goes something like this:

“I was normal and everything was fine. Then I got sick and everything was terrible.” Then comes the uplifting part which usually includes intervention, revelation, and a magical return to sanity. People like happy endings, therefore the story is expected to end with a complete recovery, and some sort of sentiment like “I’m stronger than I was before I went crazy.”

I have recited some version of this dialogue hundreds of times to hundreds of people.

But my story, and the stories countless of other people like me, doesn’t end with a complete recovery. My struggle with stigma and mental illness doesn’t cease when the lights go down, or the cameras stop rolling, and the audience begins to applaud. As much as I wish it did standing in front of a room of people and saying ‘yes, I have suffered’ is not an end to suffering, and a public claim to recovery does not mean I will never again stumble.

Too often we are taught to believe stories in terms of black and white, sick and well, but one of the defining and most frustrating characteristics of mental illness is that it is shrouded in shades of gray. This is part of what makes it so hard to treat, so easy to demonize, and so difficult to explain. I believe we need to broaden our public perception of what recovery from mental illness looks like.

Recovery is not about never falling down; it is the willingness to keep getting back up.

Spreading the message, especially to young people, that it is possible to live with active symptoms and still have a happy productive life, is equally important as the message that full recovery is achievable. It is possible to still struggle and be a respected member of your community. It is possible to doubt yourself and still be loved by others. It is possible to be a ‘sick’ person and simultaneously be a person with wisdom and intrinsic value.

“It is true that I have endured the type of soul-crushing destruction beyond what most people dream about in their worst nightmares. It is true that I have suffered and that my sense of reality has had to shift. And it is true that here is an uplifting follow-up chapter to my story. But this is not my only truth, and this is certainly not glory.”

- Laura Burke, Superhero-- A visual poem