Every time I drive this patch of road, which is almost everyday, I remember being told right at this exact spot, “You need to see a shrink.”
I was the passenger in the car. The driver was my friend who was also my boss who used to be a priest and then a therapist. He had come when I called, dropped what he was doing and drove to my house and then took me for a ride down this very hill, figuring if we drove along Lake Michigan, I would calm down and start thinking more clearly.
I was hysterical and paralyzed at the same time. Depressed, anxious, smoking constantly, pacing, and frantic, the only idea I could form in my head was to call my friend and then keep circling the living room looking out the window at every pass to see if his car was outside. And then he was there.
“You need to see a shrink. And soon. I’m going to give you two names. When you get home, call them. Whichever one can see you first, that’s who you’re going to go see.” He pulled the car over to the side of Lake Drive, took out a tiny spiral notebook from his shirt pocket and scribbled the names and phone numbers.
“You think I’m crazy. Are you saying I’m crazy?” I couldn’t envision going to a psychiatrist or a therapist or anyone.
“I didn’t say you’re crazy. But you are really fucked up and you need to deal with it. You need to see a shrink. Trust me on this. This is what you need to do right now.”
And so I did what my friend told me to do. That was thirty years ago. I spent a year in therapy, sometimes going twice a week; for a while, I took medicine to deal with my anxiety. The therapy helped me completely refocus my life, led me out of a terrible relationship, made me capable of being in a healthy one, and changed the entire course of my life story.
One of the lessons from that episode was that when a true friend tells you that you’re really fucked up and you need to see a shrink, that’s what you ought to do. So I’ve tried that a couple of times in my life with people who are especially dear. “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” I’ll say. “You can’t handle this on your own. You need to see a shrink.” But no one I’ve ever told that to has acted on that advice.
I think I know why. Stigma. And it’s not even the stigma attached to mental illness by others, it’s one’s own negative perception of mental illness. Stigma puts the brakes on getting help even when people are desperate and miserable. Getting help means being thought of as crazy, being out of control, incapable of fixing or righting oneself and needing others to step in. A person seeking help for depression or other mental illness is likely to see herself as a weak person. For people who pride themselves on being strong and capable, this can be too big a barrier to overcome.
In my case, I’d gotten to the point of feeling physically agitated; I couldn’t stand being in my own skin. My depression and anxiety were wrapped around my body and my thoughts every waking moment. I was handicapped. I was disabled. It wasn’t going to kill me; I was never suicidal, but my life had become limited and joyless. I looked forward to nothing and enjoyed nothing. It was steady, unrelenting, overpowering unhappiness. Stigma was no match for how unhappy I was.
That’s not true for so many people. Their sense of stigma about mental health keeps them locked in a shadow life, an outsider’s life. They drive down the street and see the warmly lit windows of their neighbors and believe everyone in the world is happy but them. They want that. They want what they see, to be in those warm, happy rooms. And they think they can never have that, never be happy like other people, but they can if they get help.
I know this because it happened to me. I’m living proof.