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I kept my illness a secret for almost twenty years. It is probably obvious to everyone who knows that I kept it a secret, that I have some internalized stigma. If I didn’t have internalized stigma, there would have been no reason to hide my illness all those years.

I felt embarrassment. I felt shame. I felt different. I felt broken. And then there are all the ways I felt people would treat me differently and how they would see me as “crazy.”

Over the past year, as I have become more open and public about my diagnosis, I have learned a lot. In fact, I continue to learn every day. I have learned about the issues involving the disability community, the issues, and policies regarding treatment of the people with mental illnesses, and most importantly I have learned a lot about myself.

I am no longer ashamed of my diagnosis. I don’t feel different or broken. I feel like I have used my illness to try and make schizophrenia more mainstream and less “creepy” “scary” and stereotypical. Everyone who is reading my blog or the dozens of websites I have written for knows that not everyone with schizophrenia is on the street or in the hospital. I hope people also know that although schizophrenia is serious and can be debilitating, many people living with the illness are leading average or “normal” lives.

I have used my diagnosis and the personal knowledge I have of it to try and make people more aware and accepting of an illness that has been, and continues to be, wildly misunderstood.

I am the woman next door. I am the woman in the grocery store. I am the woman in the park. I am the woman waiting at the doctor’s office.

I frequently point out that I am a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and an aunt.

And it is that last title that recently grabbed ahold of what was left of my internalized stigma and tried to chase it away. After twenty years of fear, shame and embarrassment, I have opened up my life to the world and that opening up also included people I have loved and cared about for years.

The other day my niece, who is eighteen, told me she looked up to me more than I would ever know.

The woman who was too ashamed to tell people that she had a chronic mental illness has a niece, who is young, smart, and beautiful that looks up to her.

Internalized stigma gripped my life and kept me down for over twenty years, but as I’ve started to overcome it, I have to begin to internalize other things. Someone very special looks up to me and instead of hiding that for twenty years, I am going to show it off to the world in any way that I can. I’m losing the negative and embracing the positive.

I never dreamed of being an example of a strong woman. I never dreamed that I would write daily about schizophrenia. I never dreamed that living openly and honestly would bring about healing and strength. There is so much I never dreamed of because of stigma, stereotypes, and shame. I have a completely different life than a year ago and to be honest with you, I love it. I have schizophrenia, but it doesn’t have me.