Don’t You Dare Blush

Don’t you dare blush, I thought, as I felt my face already starting to heat up. I did not need a mirror to tell me that I was going red. If you blush it’s over. The only reason you’d blush is because what he’s saying applies to you, and everyone will understand that. So don’t you dare blush.

Usually, telling myself not to blush was like not thinking about the pink elephant. It would only make me redden more quickly and start to sweat profusely. The more I would sweat, the more embarrassed I would get, and the vicious cycle would go on. This time, however, my face began to cool. Maybe the dire nature of the situation gave me the willpower to conquer my physiognomy’s betrayal. But I’d only held back the tide. The lesson had only just begun.

“You see, the Torah prohibits it because it’s not natural,” Mr Scheftz said as he paced in front of the board, chalk in hand. “Animals do not do it, because sex is for one purpose, and that is procreation.”

I tried to focus on the words that had no special meaning for me. Animals. Purpose. Natural. Natural. Natural. Just don’t think about the meaning. I kept my head down, looking at the desk, so as not to catch anyone’s eye. I could not risk them seeing my inner turmoil.

“You hear couples say that they broke up because they ‘just weren’t a good fit for each other’. That is totally false. Men and women fit each other perfectly. They were made to fit each other. Men and men, or women and women do not fit each other.”

Jacklyn put up her hand. “Mr Scheftz. I’ve heard that gay people say it’s not a choice. How can God punish them for being born that way?”

Mr Scheftz took a deep breath in, still pacing back and forth like he always did.

“They say it’s not a choice,” he intoned. “But it’s always a choice. No one has to have sex. If a man is attracted to men and not women, he can choose not to have sex. God punishes the sin, not the sinner.”

The sin, not the sinner, I thought. The sin, not the sinner. I considered putting up my hand, just like Jacklyn had. If I was brave enough to ask a question, that would make it look like I had nothing to hide, right? But I knew that if I did that, I would go bright red and sweat would pour down my face, and then everyone would know. If only I had a little bit of composure!

I tried to focus on the words he’d said. The sin, not the sinner. I was the sinner, and I’d already sinned over and over again, hunched over a toilet. If anyone ever found out about that… The sin, not the sinner. Don’t blush. You’ve done well so far. Just keep it up.

“There are even special shuls where gay people can go.”

How could anyone go to one of those shuls? I wondered, briefly considering the option. If anyone sees you going in, they’ll know your secret.

Kerry put up her hand. “The Torah says that men can’t sleep with men, but it doesn’t say women can’t sleep with women. Are you allowed to be a lesbian?”

“That would be physically impossible for me,” Mr Scheftz said, and the class giggled. I laughed with them. “No, the Torah says that you must not follow the way of the Egyptians, and that’s referring to their sexual practices. In Egypt, women had sex with women, men cheated on their wives, and they had mass orgies.”

I could smell my deodorant, activated by the heat under my arms. I was still putting all my mental power into not blushing. I could not afford to. Would this lesson not just end? I looked at my watch. Still 20 minutes left! I could not make it, I simply could not make it that long.

I put up my hand.

“Can I go to the bathroom please?”

Mr Scheftz gave me the go-ahead. I exited the room quickly, without looking around at the rest of the class. Could they tell? I barely ever put up my hand, not even to go to the bathroom. Would this breach of character show them what I was going through?

As I walked down the corridor, I lifted my face to the breeze and felt the air cool my skin. That’s better. Finally, I was free, if only for a couple of minutes. I was alone, the only way I should be, the only way to ensure no one ever found out what type of person I was. Alone I could pretend that my red face and sweat meant nothing sinister. Alone I could collapse into myself, and hide within the heavy burden of my pathetic existence.

But I’d have to go back to class soon, and there’d still be 15 minutes of that hell. I wished for a moment that I’d get sick, faint, fall flat on the floor. That I’d wake up and the nightmare would be over, and I’d never have a bad urge again. That I’d never blush, or have to hide. That I could be myself and be proud, and not feel the immense shame I carried with me wherever I went. And that I’d suddenly be someone that mattered, and not a constant disappointment to myself.

That was a pipe dream, I knew. Better not to dream at all. My only hope was in telling myself that one thing: just don’t blush.

Will The Mental Illness Stigma Ever Go Away?

No.

The mental illness stigma will never go away.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

I live in a diverse world, with friends of varying sexual preferences, gender identities, races, and religions. Nearly every one of them has been stigmatised by one or another sector of society. We’ve all thankfully come to a place in our lives where we live openly and honestly. With pride.

Personally, I’ve faced the stigma of being a gay Jewish atheist in an interracial relationship. And I am able to speak about my identity with anyone, no matter their own personal beliefs.

Well, with one exception: I suffer from depression.

Now, unlike homosexuality, most cultures and belief systems do not reject the depressed. There is no verse in Leviticus saying that I should be put to death. So why is it still so hard to be open about the fact that I suffer from mental illness?

And why am I convinced the stigma will never completely go away?

It’s part of the illness

Because I’ve been out the closet for years now, I can say with pride that I am gay. There are a few reasons. I can logically understand that being gay is perfectly normal, and that embracing that identity has made my life better. I am also constantly around others who embrace that identity.

Most importantly, the dissenting voices came from the outside. I was told being gay is bad and shameful and immoral and so on.

Depression is, unfortunately, very different.

You can live in a society that is open about mental health and you can know others who suffer from mental illness, but still feel ashamed because of it. The reason is that the stigma is not coming (only) from the outside.

Underscoring just about all mental illness is the internalised belief that “I am not good enough”, “I am weak”, “The world is better off without me”. Those types of thoughts and the feelings associated with them are symptoms of the depression. They become so ingrained in us that we don’t even think to question them.

Which is part of the reason that, to this day, I am still ashamed that I suffer from depression. At this moment, my mind is still telling me that if I wasn’t so weak, I would never have reached the really low points punctuating my life.

BUT…

…even the societal stigmatisation of depression will never completely go away. And there’s a good reason for this too.

It is an illness

The ultimate acceptance of homosexuality is to view it as normal and not give it thought. To not have to pity the person or wish, for their sake, that they get “better”.

Mental illness is, by its very definition, completely different.

If I tell you I suffer from depression and you say, “that’s a perfectly normal and healthy lifestyle”, I’m going to look at you strangely. Mental illness should elicit sympathy from others. They want you to get better and to be free of the burden.

Yet, when you tell someone with a mental illness that you feel for them and hope they get better soon, they will take it as pity for their weakness. As I said above, that’s just part of the illness.

But it goes beyond that.

We stigmatise illness for practical reasons that, unfortunately, are compelling.

For example, would you start dating someone who you knew had cancer? Someone who you know you’d have to accompany to chemotherapy. Someone whose health needs would consume your life. Someone who might die on you way too early.

Some people will answer yes, but for most, the answer is no ways. You’re not judging the person for being ill, and if they were already in your life you would stick with them without a second thought.

But to take on that burden is to be a martyr.

Dating someone who suffers from a mental illness can be similar. Their depression or mania might well set the tone for the relationship. They might be in and out of hospital. And ultimately, they could kill themselves, leaving you to feel both terrible grief and unbearable guilt for not having saved them.

I’m not saying that there should be a stigma. Rather, it makes sense that others would want to know that the person was managing their illness well before getting involved.

There’s a difference between stigma and concern

The problem is that as humans, we tend to categorise things as good or bad and making all-too-easy associations. Since mental illness seems like a bad thing, people associated with it get a label too.

And that does not have to be the case.

There are things we can do to limit the stigma, and keep the focus on the illness rather than the individual.

Separate the illness from our/their identity

This applies to those who suffer from mental illness as well as those who do not. Part of recovering from depression (or anxiety, or bipolar, etc.) is to depersonalise it. Instead of saying “I’m depressed”, we have to learn to say “I feel depressed” or “I suffer from depression”.

We have to realise that mental illness is not an identity. Only then can we start to heal from it. Because we’re not trying to fix something broken in ourselves, but rather treating a disease.

People who do not suffer from mental illness need to recognise this as well. When someone they know is suffering from bipolar, they too can say “X suffers from bipolar” instead of “X is bipolar”.

ALSO…

…never call us crazy!

Ultimately, we can hope to lessen the stigma, but not only will it take time, it will also be an essential part of the healing process.