My Mental Illness Is Not a Fashion Statement

Andrew Voigt
A man who looks serious, wearing a green jacket
A man who looks serious, wearing a green jacket

Over the past 20 years, the discussion around mental health has become more socially acceptable, which is an absolutely wonderful, glorious thing. Rather than people hiding their pain behind “I’m fine,” many people are seeking the help they actually need. As someone who has lived with an anxiety disorder for most of my life, I am grateful to live in such an age where I can seek therapy, take my meds and work towards healing without being shamed. Yet, I can’t help but wonder: has the matter of mental health swung too far to the other end of the pendulum in our search for de-stigmatization?

We live in a culture that absolutely loves to package and sell what people find glamorous and enigmatic. We all know sex sells, yet we also have other cultural trends that come and go, some healthy and others a bit more deadly. As mental health has become more and more acceptable to talk about in society, so has the dangerous trend of what I consider “mental illness glamorization.” It’s almost as if some people want a mental illness!

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As someone who was diagnosed with a severe case of the anxiety disorder called obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), as well as someone the psychologist considered “one of the worst cases he’d ever seen” (those were his words), let me speak from experience: true mental illness is hell, not a glamorous runway show of branding, celebrity icons and model shots on the cover of Psychology Today. It’s not a badge to put on my next Hot Topic jacket or a “real” tidbit about yourself on Tinder to lure those sexy, “authentic” profile matches. If you don’t have a mental illness, trust me when I say that mental illness is nothing to be desired. If you’re still in the market for one, despite my warnings, let’s talk. You can have mine for half market price.

Years after the diagnosis of having a “severe anxiety disorder,” I often found myself practically identifying as “that guy with OCD,” whether at work or in my interpersonal relationships. It became a part of my identity. My enemy was practically my only friend, so I kept it around. It knew me, I knew it; we had a mutual understanding.

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Is there something wrong with people branding mental health awareness t-shirts, bracelets and marketing materials? Not necessarily. Heck, I’m glad that it’s becoming more talked about and treated with more concern. Yet, if all we do is wear our mental illness like a badge, rather than pursuing healing, that defeats the point of awareness. We say, “It’s OK to not be OK,” but then we stop.

For those of us who live with mental illness, trust me when I say that our stories do not have to end with “I have a mental disorder.” You are not your disorder. Your story can continue towards healing, finding better days and maybe even being that beacon of hope to someone else down the road.

Healing can be terrifying for someone with mental illness. We’ve worn it like a tattoo for so long that we’ve forgotten what we looked like before the needle hit the skin. In a twisted way, it becomes a part of you… Healing is terrifying, because it means severing the tie with the one thing that knows us so well (and vice-versa): our disorder. It’s hard to explain, but there was almost a comforting familiarity in the anxiety, depression and suffering I experienced during my darkest years. It was what I knew. Healing means I’m divorcing what I know for something unknown (and the unknown terrifies us).

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So we tweet about our self-hatred, we revel in being a misfit and we comfort ourselves with the very poison that’s killing us. We brand it, we sing about it in our music and we talk about it on TV, yet we often don’t get to the part that says, “Healing is real. Things can get better.” There are mental health awareness champions who celebrate healing and make it their anthem! Yet, they seem to be more and more the exception than the rule.

In case you’re wondering, therapy, medication and a few too many trips to the movie theater have played a big role in my journey towards healing and I’m immensely grateful to say that I’m millions of miles away from the guy I was 15 years ago. I still struggle at times, but I’m a man in repair. Healing is very, very real.

In a culture that glamorizes what destroys us, it’s time that we started changing the narrative. For people who are struggling with mental illness, I hope you know that it’s OK to not be OK, but it’s not OK to stop there. You can find healing. Your mental illness is not a fashion statement.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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