After struggling with mental illness my entire life, a couple years ago a miraculous thing happened. I found my voice and finally began opening up about my mental health struggles. Talking about living with such a debilitating illness has altered my life in so many positive ways, as well as changing my outlook on life itself for the better. For the most part, I have been met with wonderful support, not only from others who are struggling as well but also by those who, though they have never experienced mental illness firsthand, yearn to understand and empathize with the plight of others in their lives.
And then there are the trolls.
Those lovely people who relish commenting on other people’s lives for no other reason than to accuse and attack.
They inform me that my mental illness “is all in my head”.
They tell me that “everyone has problems”, say I “should stop having a pity party” and “just get over it”.
And they suggest that I’m just looking for attention and wanting others to feel sorry for me.
Though I always try to remind myself “water off a duck’s back”, those comments honestly eat at me because I have never seen myself as seeking attention or wanting anyone to feel bad for me.
As a matter of fact, for most of my life, I kept my struggles largely to myself. I did not want to burden anyone else with my problems, especially problems they neither caused or would be able to solve. Many of my friends were genuinely surprised when they finally heard about what I’ve been through because I kept so much to myself. I’ve been described as one of the happiest, sweetest depressed people that most will ever meet because I refuse to let my illness defeat or define me.
I also personally have never wanted anyone to pity me. Yes, I have been through a lot of trauma in my life. And yes, I am struggling with a life-long debilitating mental illness as well as multiple meningioma tumors on my brain. But you know what? I’m still here. Still fighting. Every single day. I fight to stay healthy and to stay positive, despite my own brain constantly trying to convince me otherwise.
Yet I am quick to tell others not to feel sorry for me for the simple fact that I am still here. I am a survivor. If you must feel sorry for someone, feel sorry for all those who have lost their battle with mental illness. Feel sorry for all those who suffered in silence and died never finding their voice.
The question remains:
If I am not looking for attention or for pity, why am I writing?
I write so others can better understand an illness that affects millions of people every year yet is still widely misunderstood and stigmatized.
I write because I know there are others out there who are struggling but don’t have the words to fully articulate the battles they are fighting every single day.
I write because I should not be ashamed of my illness or forced into silence due to other people’s ignorance, misinformation, lack of compassion or any other stigma they carry regarding my condition.
I don’t write for a pat on the back from anyone either. I don’t need a “good job”, a certificate of merit or a gold star. I need others to know they’re not alone. I need them to be okay, to keep fighting, to not give up. If my words can help even one person or five or ten, then I have made a positive difference in this world and that is enough for me.
Imagine silently struggling for years with an illness that nobody else can see. The entire time, friends and family are repeatedly asking what is wrong with you, why you seem so different, so distant, why you’re not able to do everything you used to be able to do. Imagine spending your life being expected to apologize just for being ill.
If your best friend invites you along for a 5k run and you decline, explaining that the chemotherapy your doctors gave you to fight your cancer has you too worn out and drained to go along, your friend will most likely show compassion, support and understanding. They will accept that you are struggling with an illness you neither asked for nor have any control over and that you are trying your best to heal and get healthy again.
Your family would not question if you spent whole days in bed while struggling to beat cancer either. They just want you to do whatever you need to do to get better. Nobody would accuse you of looking for attention simply for describing what you are going through and explaining that you currently don’t feel capable of joining in.
Replace cancer with many other debilitating illnesses and conditions and the story remains unchanged.
Can’t go running because you have a heart condition and you physically cannot handle it in your current state? Not a problem.
Spent the day in bed because your diabetes has flared up and struggling to balance your sugar again has you exhausted? Asthma acting up and you’re struggling to even breathe so you need to rest? Rheumatoid arthritis flare up and you can barely stand let alone run? Get some rest and feel better. It’s okay. Everyone understands. Take care of yourself.
However, if you are struggling with a mental illness, compassion often goes right out the window.
You’re told to “suck it up”.
To “stop feeling sorry for yourself”.
To stop making excuses, get off your butt and get over it”.
“Stop being a baby”. “Stop looking for attention”. “Just stop altogether”.
The truth is – we shouldn’t have to stop acknowledging our existence or our reality.
Our medical condition is just as valid as any other one. It, too, was diagnosed by a doctor. It, too, needs medical treatment. And it, too, deserves to be acknowledged. We deserve the same compassion and empathy that you’d show to anyone else who is sick with any other debilitating illness.
I spent forty years apologizing. “I’m sorry I can’t do more”. “I’m sorry I’m such a mess”. “I’m sorry I’m so broken”. “I’m sorry I’m having such an off day”. “I’m sorry I let everyone down”. “I’m sorry for existing”. “I’m sorry for being sick”.
But you know what?
I shouldn’t have apologized all those times. I had done nothing wrong. I was, and still am, struggling with a valid and verifiable medical condition. I did not ask to be sick nor did I do anything to cause this illness. I was born with it hard-wired into my genetics.
And these days I am completely unapologetic for my condition.
Am I looking for attention?
All I want, and feel I rightfully deserve, is the same acknowledgement, compassion and understanding as people would show anyone else with any other serious medical condition.
Do I want anyone to feel sorry for me?
I don’t wallow in my condition but I don’t minimize it or sugar coat it either. I am unapologetically and blatantly honest about what it is like living with mental illness because the only way to fight misconceptions and stigma is with the truth.
I’m a fighter. I am so much more than my illness and I refuse to let it define me or beat me. Don’t pity me. Cheer me on for the fact that I am still going. Be proud of the fact that I am taking the lemons life has given me and transforming them into something positive to help others.
I talk about my struggles with mental illness because I refuse to stay silent any longer. I refuse to pretend I am fine when I am not or to apologize when I have done nothing wrong. Most importantly, I write about what it is like because there are too many others out there struggling who need to know they are not alone.
Trolls are going to troll. They attack what they don’t care to understand. It is easier for them to pass judgment than to show compassion or try to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
But I don’t write for trolls.
I write for that teenager sitting alone in a dark room feeling all alone, convinced nobody else could possibly understand. I write for that widow, sitting in an empty house, struggling to find a reason to pull themselves out of bed. I write for that person who keeps eyeing that bridge on their drive home each night or who sits at their table, gun in hand, weighing whether or not to eat a bullet and put an end to their misery. I write to add my voice and my story to the collective of everyone struggling with mental illness.
I write to let them all know they are not alone and that others understand. I write so that they know they, too, are more than their diagnosis and they don’t have to let it define them. I write to remind them that they, too, are fighters and survivors and to help them find the courage and the words to tell their own stories. I write to encourage them to get the help they desperately need.
I also write for that parent who desperately wants to understand why their teenager has begun isolating themselves and never smiles anymore. I write for that husband who needs to understand why his wife just hasn’t been the same since she had the baby. I write for everyone who has lost someone to suicide or has sat there dumbfounded after a loved one’s failed attempt, unsure of what to say so that their world would make sense again. I write for everyone who desperately wants to understand this illness though they have never experienced it themselves.
I don’t write to appease trolls because I have no place in my life anymore for those who spend their lives spreading negativity, judgment and hatred. They are not my target audience. Not my circus. Not my monkeys. Not my problem. I will spend just as much time caring about their opinions as they have spent empathizing with my condition.
For those that I am hoping to reach – please don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. You are so much more than your illness. You, too, are a fighter. A survivor. You, too, can get through this. Know that you are not alone. Don’t be afraid to reach out, to speak up. There is no shame in asking for help, for needing to see a doctor for your medical condition. Stay strong. You’ve got this.
Republished on The Mighty on 5/27/19.
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