When I was eighteen I was a nanny for two little boys. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with the elder, who was six, about our dads.

“What bus does your daddy take to work? Mine takes the 11. I bet my daddy’s bus is faster. What time does your daddy leave for work? I bet mine leaves earlier.”

It seems that we have a basic instinct, from very early on, to compare ourselves with others and equate our worth with competition. His dad and my dad both worked very hard, but that sweet little boy was determined that his dad worked harder.

The first time I remember feeling as though my illness was being compared to others’ was when I was in the hospital at the age of seventeen. The hospital itself was up the street from my high school. After a few weeks of in-patient treatment, the doctor started to encourage me to attend a class or two a day. I got on the bus at the mental hospital and went to Math class.

I found this profoundly unfair. I was sick. I was very, very sick. The medication they were giving me was making me physically ill and also not effectively treating my psychological symptoms. I had blinding headaches, I was crying all the time, I hadn’t slept in weeks and was in both physical and mental pain—but they made me go to third period Drama.

After what felt like an eternity of this strange and painful limbo, which was probably less than a week, I broke down and started screaming at one of the nurses.

“I know I’m not as sick as some of the other people in here, but I am sick. I am sick enough to deserve help.”

Very soon after the outburst, I checked myself out of the hospital and continued my treatment at home. I was so paranoid and insecure that I just couldn’t take the perceived judgment from the staff around me. I know now that they were trying to help me, but at the time I felt attacked.

I have never forgotten the feeling those weeks instilled in me. Since then, I have fought a largely internal battle with myself over whether or not my illness is legitimate and at times, even real.

This feeling is called self-stigma. It is when one starts to believe their own bad press, starts to believe they should be denied opportunities and accommodations, starts to believe they are faking it and playing it up. It is the hardest kind of stigma to combat because most of the world will agree with that attitude. We have to be our own strongest advocates and we have to fight for the same rights and recognition as patients with physical illnesses. Instead of comparing yourself to those with similar challenges and feeling inadequate, it is important to find others who have struggled with mental illness and draw strength from their successes, as well as your own.

It is difficult to have conversations about mental illness with people who have never experienced it. Often they try to relate. However, we have been conditioned not to relate to one another, but to out-do one another. Depression is different from being sad; anxiety is not the same as worrying.

Avoid pissing matches because understanding mental illness is not a competition of whose life is harder or who is sicker. Empathy has to go all around, or everyone just ends up defensive.

Although, for the record, my Dad rode the subway.

About Sarah Lindsay

Sarah Lindsay is in her mid-twenties and lives in Toronto with her boyfriend and their dog (who also has some anxiety issues). Sarah was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 2005 at the age of 16 and is still trying to figure it out. Follow Sarah’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds Blog, or additionally you can follow her on Twitter, Facebook or check out her new website: SarahsMoods.com

  • Cynthia

    I didn’t even know self-stigma was a thing! Well…I knew it was a thing, but I didn’t know it had a name. Also, I’ve 100% felt the competition aspect you discussed. I remember that on days when I was a feeling good and functioning well, I’d sort of wish I was doing worse…just to, I don’t know, legitimize my label or something. It’s odd that!

    • Hi Cynthia, I agree I had no idea it was a thing until I started volunteering in mental health and started teaching others about self care. I had no idea I was the biggest culprit of what I lectured against! Glad to know I’m not alone 🙂

    • lsong

      So feel that!!

  • lsong

    I feel ya. I self-stigmatize every time I need to stay home – I have to tell myself that yes, I AM sick. I’m not throwing up or running a raging fever, but I am sick. Also, my mother is the worst for trying to out-do regarding illness, aches, pains, diabetes…..she can not one-up me on the Bipolar, though, because she refuses to understand what it is in the first place. She just changes the subject! It is so true that we are always competing with each other about who is the sickest – really a strange human condition. I have caught myself doing it as well – must stop that. Thanks for your BLOG 🙂

    • Thank you lsong, love to hear I’m not the only one out there who feels the pressure on those “mental health days” as I call them. Just have to stay positive and stick up for yourself! Comparison only makes everyone unhappy.

Connect with us

@healthy_minds
@healthymindscanada