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Mental Health Stigma and Straight Edge

I need help. There I said it. I need help. Those three words come with weight all their own. A whole barrage of stigma can follow: weak, pathetic, vulnerable, unstable, sick, incapable, and a whole slew of other words that cause pause and judgment. 

The straight edge community, for many, has become a place or respite, an outlet of positivity, self-expression, strength, justice, and equality. The messages encompass, “all are welcome”, intolerance for sexism, racism, corruption, violence, rape culture, and other tried and true concepts built over the years. One that may not be explored as often, accepted, understood, or even talked about is mental illness.

For me, straight edge became a place of peace, a newfound strength I didn’t know I had deep down inside me; however, I deal with anxiety, depression, and at times suicidal thoughts. I take medication daily to keep myself afloat. Many may see this as not being a true straight edge, and maybe that’s true. But in my case, I need to be the best husband and father I can, otherwise being straight edge would be the least of my problems – survival would be at the top of my list. I even question my own ability to call myself straight edge because of my diagnosis and prescription medication. I’ve tried to reduce my dose and move towards no medication, but I don’t know that it will ever happen. 

The current situation around the world has forced us all to look at the big picture, what’s happening in our communities, schools, government, social circles, and financial obligations. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a loss of opportunity, jobs, hope, financial security, our previous idea of normalcy, and the lives of over 900,000 plus people worldwide. Collectively, our mental health has taken a big hit. The once certainty of our jobs, seeing friends and family, and our lives are in question. 

We are all in this together. I know, I’m tired of hearing that propaganda too, but it’s true. We have the ability to refocus and build a better tomorrow now. That includes the ability to accept one’s self. It’s okay to ask for help. Period. There is a stigma that surrounds asking for help and if I’m being honest, I have a terrible time asking for help. I think that’s a large part of why I struggled with anxiety and depression for so long. I didn’t have the tools, resources, and community to lean on and ask for help. I didn’t know what I needed, where to go, who to ask, and what the answers and outcomes would be. 

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Amanda Palmer (singer and co-founder of the band Dresdon Dolls) did an amazing TED Talk about asking for help. She later wrote a book, ‘The Art of Asking‘. I don’t know if Amanda is straight edge and for the moment, it really doesn’t matter. She created a community around her music, fan base, and herself. The whole idea encouraged engagement, communication, openness, and growth as a community. The stories she shares and her ability to ask for help is unprecedented. After reading it, it changed my entire idea of asking for help, what it meant, and how to go about asking for help. I encourage you to watch the TED Talk above. 

Straight edge stems from an idea of self-control and self-reliance; something that is not synonymous with mental illness. We are all already well aware of the stigma attached to mental illness. Is there a stigma with mental health and being straight edge? I’d like to think no, but I’m not sure it’s been fully reviewed. 

Acceptance does not mean failure 

Mental illness, apart from the obvious, comes with its own set of challenges. Acceptance would maybe be the first thing that is required. Understanding you may have a mental illness is one thing, but accepting it is another. Acceptance of mental illness sounds like failure, like a personal failure, and the opposite of self-control and self-reliance. It’s not. You can’t control the chemicals in your body, much like you cannot control the color of your hair.

Although some who experience mental illness over the course of their lives experience minor setbacks and things change and whatever their diagnosis is or was, begins to fade; normal life returns. However, there are people who have major setbacks, symptoms, and it challenges their lives daily. Setbacks can come in a variety of forms: missed opportunities, personal and professional growth, self-acceptance, forgiveness, healing, and betterment. 

I use the term setbacks not as a negative, but as a way to gauge the impact mental illness can have. It does not allow you to fully experience life and yourself. Everything you see is viewed through a reality that is skewed. This is a general statement, but for example, anxiety can impact what you do and what you do not do in life, with your time, with family and friends, and the risks you do and do not take. If it feels unsafe or stressful you may ignore it, even if it’s the best thing for you.

Treatment also has attached stigma

Treatment follows acceptance. Once you have accepted your mental illness many questions come rushing in. I found it very helpful to have a community or people who can relate to what I was going through or people who had professional experience who could help me through the next steps and healing. This aspect of mental illness might be the most scrutinized. Asking for help means medication, seeing a professional, going to a hospital, or taking some time away from work and/or family. 

Using the word treatment, like acceptance, feels like a personal failure. In my mind, when I got to this aspect of my own mental illness, I didn’t want to accept I needed help. I thought I could continue to handle it on my own. I couldn’t, and it almost killed me trying. Asking for help is not a personal failure. It is accepting that you don’t have all the tools and knowledge about what’s going on and need guidance. Just think of Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi from Star Wars. If you haven’t seen it, I’m sorry. If you have seen it, then you most likely know what I’m talking about. 

Vulnerability requires practice and patience

Working with someone requires vulnerability. The ability to sit down with someone who has wide expertise in mental illness, psychology, therapy, and counseling can help you look at your life and the big picture. Some have the ability to help you make choices about medication or alternative options. All come with the capacity of compassion you will need. They are an unbiased third party. They are not friends or family. Their job is not to judge or shame you. They can help you understand your triggers, how to handle them, what to do for the future and the best course of action for your specific needs. 

Opening up about mental illness is not easy. Thank you, stigma. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Vulnerability is not weakness, it’s strength and requires courage. Trust and the willingness to share yourself with another person takes time. As you begin to understand your specific circumstances, you can create a map around the direction you want to take and the timeline involved. Be realistic and be kind to yourself. 

Healing feels uncomfortable

The process of healing takes time and feels strange. If you have felt one way for your whole life or a long time, feeling anything different feels strange and at times wrong. Growth is the part of healing that can hurt in physical ways, but also mental and emotional ways too. The road to finding the right medication (if you and your doctor choose to explore that option) can come with side effects. Not all medications are the same. There are some that come with little to no side effects and others that you will want to balance all the options. My experience with two different medications over a six-year period has been very mild. The pros of taking daily medication for me have far outweighed the cons. I was also taking my daily medication before I became straight edge. Because I take medication, some may think or say that I am not straight edge or that I’m not true straight edge.

When you think about it taking a daily medication to function at your best is not. That seems very backward to me. Take medication to be healthy and contribute to society. Drink alcohol to fit in like everyone else. I also didn’t want to be challenged as to why I took medication and called myself straight edge. 

Forget stigma, welcome acceptance

In closing, if you are straight edge and struggling with your own mental health, I won’t judge you, if you want to reach out ([email protected]). I’m not a professional and I’m not a doctor, but I have a story and I’m willing to share it with anyone. I’m also willing to listen to yours. They say you are not alone and it’s a truth, you are not alone. It sounds cliche’ but look at the numbers and the data. Also understand and realize that during the COVID-19 global pandemic, we are all going to need to evaluate our mental and emotional health. Be good to yourself and others.

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  1. I know this post is old as hell, but I’m dealing with stuff at the moment as well and wanted to say taking meds still leaves you straight edge, as you aren’t trying to escape reality, you’re trying to come back to it. That’s my two cents worth anyway


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