October 24, 2017, is a day that will forever be engrained into my mind. It was a day that I always feared but one that I never thought would actually happen. I can remember the weather, what I was wearing, what happened, and everything else in between. That day was the day my sister passed away and when my life was completely torn apart.
The Stigma of Mental Illness
Over ten years ago, my sister was diagnosed with a mental illness and although she lived a happy and healthy life for much of that time, she lost her battle with her illness on that fall morning.
In the months following my sister’s death, my eyes were opened to a whole new world of mental illness and the stigma that seemed to follow it. I would overhear people say things about mental illness or poke fun at things associated with it and that infuriated me. There I was, dealing with the loss of my sister and I would hear people make comments such as, “I’d rather kill myself than go to work today” or things like downplaying depression would come into the conversation and I was shocked at the lack of education and awareness. It broke my heart that I would hear things like that in my grieving, but it tore me apart knowing that these comments are said so casually and without knowing what’s in your audience’s mind.
As unfortunate as it is, the truth is that mental illness is a difficult thing to process and deal with because it is so complex. While other illnesses attack parts of the body, mental illness attacks within the brain and since the brain is such a complex part of the body, there is little understanding with one should treat their mental illness and little understanding as to what mental illness actually is.
My passion in life is to fight against the stigma of mental illness. I want to break down the walls surrounding it and begin having real and honest conversations so that we can end the stigma and begin helping those who are too embarrassed or ashamed of their illness to ask for help.
The Traumatic Loss
So, let’s get real. My name is Lauren and for months following my sister’s death, I faced depression, PTSD, grief, panic attacks, fear, anxiety, and insomnia. Some days were manageable and other days all I wanted to do was sleep away the pain. I never knew what the day would bring and that was always a bit scary for me. I wanted to wake up each morning feeling great, but I would lay in bed at night terrified of how I would feel when the morning came.
On that day in October, I experienced a traumatic loss in my family and it would not be normal if I was just acting “happy” all of the time. In fact, what I was experiencing in response to that loss is very normal. Not only was I grieving the loss of my sister, but I was also dealing with all the other things associated with it. I was navigating through a whole host of emotions and it has been quite the journey. Some nights I would not sleep for more than one or two hours. Other days, it was hard for me to get out of bed and face the day. At times, I would gaze off and have flashbacks when people would say things that triggered me. With that, I also feared losing people close to me and I would feel anxious about day-to-day tasks.
Fighting an Uphill Battle
Here’s the thing. In the months following her death, I had to fight an uphill battle every single day. It was hard. It was brutal. But I had to fight and claw my way out of those dark times with the hope that one day I would overcome them. At times I had nothing except for the hope that one-day things would get better. That one day I wouldn’t be plagued with deep grief and sadness.
Thankfully, I have been able to fight this battle and things have gotten better. On some days I wake up and have to fight the negative feelings creeping in, but other days I wake up feeling great, which is normal when dealing with a tragedy. I still (and probably always will) struggle with the painful reality that I have to live the rest of my life without my sister and some days will be harder than others, but I will keep fighting to progress forward.
Each day I grow stronger in the things that I face and although sometimes I take a few steps back, I feel like I also take leaps forward. This will always be part of my story, the depression, and grief. I’m not sure that I will ever be fully “cured” from those because what I had to experience was quite damaging, but what I do know is that I am not at all ashamed of my story. I did not choose for my life to go down this path and I sure as heck did not choose the circumstances that brought me here. My depression and grief do not define me, but they are part of me and I am not embarrassed by that.
Grateful for My Grief
This is my story and as odd as it sounds, I am grateful that my grief has taken me down this journey because it has put me in the position to understand what people feel when they are struggling. It helps me see the world from a new perspective. And most of all, it helps me to truly understand that God is faithful, He is good, and that my life is nothing without Him. I have been forced to open my hands and find true surrender in the arms of God. Ultimately, I have experienced the amazing love and joy that only God has to offer in the midst of my deep and dark pain. I’m still on the journey, but I continue to have hope.
So where do we go from here?
Your Mental Illness does NOT Define You
Well, to those who are faced with a mental illness like my sister was, I am sorry for the stigma the world has placed on your situation. You are not any less of a person; you are not crazy; you do not have to feel embarrassed. Your brain just doesn’t feel well and your mental illness does NOT define you. There is help for you and there are people who understand what you are going through. You can overcome this and you can feel better. Never lose your hope that things are going to get better and that one day you will start to feel your joy come back.
Don’t Make Jokes about Mental Illness
To those who do not have a mental illness, pay attention to what you say. Think about your words. Don’t make jokes about mental illness, never joke about suicide, and when someone comes to you and says they are struggling with depression, love them and care for them. Help them. You may not have a mental illness, but you do have a part in stopping the stigma of it.
Let’s begin to break the stigma by simply talking about your story. I know I would love to hear it.
The traumatic experience of losing a loved one to suicide is very different than losing a loved one in any other way. For more help read, To Survivors of Suicide Loss.
Lauren Wierzba is a 28-year old who is passionate about bringing awareness to all things mental health. On October 24th, 2017 her sister lost her battle to mental illness and so began Lauren’s journey of fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves. Her purpose in life is to erase the stigma of mental illness. For more blogs from Lauren visit, Joy In the Journey.
If you or a friend need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, for free confidential, 24/7 help. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world. For additional help, please visit the suicide prevention resource page.