Please Give Mental Illness The Same Respect You Would Give Other Illnesses

Not everyone understands what it is like living with a mental illness. I get that. Most people, at their core, mean well and are trying to help in one way or another.  Whether they are attempting to be supportive or trying to snap someone back into their perceived “reality”, they just don’t know what to say.  I understand that completely, too. But using tired old cliches about life that don’t apply to living with a serious illness does not help at all.  Nor does it help to offer outdated advice that has been proven to be both ignorant and ineffective.  They do much more harm than good. It not only minimizes our condition and our struggles, but it also tells us that you neither understand what we are going through nor do you take our illness, or us, seriously.

Please do not tell us that “everyone has problems sometimes“, “into everyone’s life a little rain must fall“, or that “nobody said life was fair“.  Likewise, please don’t tell us “it is what it is” or “everyone gets depressed sometimes“, as if our diagnosis is an everyday, trivial, meaningless bit of happenstance that is unimportant and should be paid no mind.  A mental illness is not an average, run of the mill problem, a typical bump in the road of life that everyone faces at some point and is easily cast aside or overcome. It is a medical diagnosis, a medical condition that drastically affects every aspect of our lives.  You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer that everyone has problems sometimes, laughing it off like it was nothing. You would show an appropriate level of concern over their health and well-being. You would encourage them to see a doctor and take care of themselves. You would be supportive. You wouldn’t dream of minimizing their condition because, left untreated, it could have deadly consequences. So could my mental illness and it deserves to be treated in the same regard.

Asking us if we’ve “just tried being happy“, telling us we “need to just learn to focus on the positives” or otherwise suggesting we’re not trying hard enough misplaces the blame on us for our diagnosis. The patient is never to blame when their body goes haywire and runs amuck. We understand that sometimes our bodies malfunction, become unbalanced, and horrible things like tumors occur.  You can’t will away cancer with a positive outlook and trying harder won’t make tumors disappear. The same goes for mental illnesses.  We don’t tell someone with cancer that it is “all in their head“, “mind over matter“, and expect them to become healthy again by sheer willpower alone. We encourage them to see a doctor immediately, get everything taken care of and treated so their body can work properly and be healthy again. Untreated cancer can eat a person alive from the inside out, deteriorating their health and destroying the quality of their life in every way. So can mental illness. The only difference is cancer mainly attacks and destroys the physical body while mental illnesses primarily attack the mind.

Please don’t judge us on our appearance, telling us that we “don’t look sick” or that we “just need to smile more” as if our diagnosis is even remotely dependent on our outward appearance.  Also, please don’t tell us that we “don’t look all that sad to you” or that we “looked just fine the other day” because we have briefly managed to put on a brave face or wear a mask to hide our pain.  Having a good day here and there does not negate all the bad ones.  Invisible illnesses are still illnesses.  Like many other serious health conditions inside the body, you cannot often or easily see mental illness with the naked eye.  Not seeing a tumor growing inside someone does not make it any less real or dangerous.  Not seeing a diabetic’s pancreas malfunctioning does not mean it is not happening or that they do not need treatment.  Someone with cancer or another serious medical condition occasionally smiling, laughing or briefly enjoying life does not mean that they are instantly cured and tumor-free.  Just because you cannot see our mental illness does not mean we are not suffering.

Asking us “why can’t you just be normal?” or suggesting that we “need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves” not only blames us for our diagnosis but treats us as if we’re somehow broken or flawed and it is all in our head.  Nobody asks to have a mental illness nor does anyone want to be sick.  We are not doing this to ourselves.  We are not having pity parties. Please don’t suggest we’re just looking for attention or tell us that “the only one we’re hurting is ourselves” either, as if we’re intentionally sabotaging our own happiness by entertaining the absurd idea of some make-believe malady.  Mental illness is a very real medical diagnosis, one that is often completely beyond our control.  Our behavior did not cause it any more than a person’s attitude or imagination can cause tumors.

Please do not suggest we should just “snap out of it and get over things already“, either.  A person cannot snap out of a mental illness diagnosis any more than they can snap out of diabetes.  There is no set time frame that someone should be better, or even show marked improvement.  Like diabetes, a mental health diagnosis often lasts a lifetime.  And the healing process with most illnesses is not linear.  A diabetic can alternate between periods of stability, and episodes of sugar spikes and crashes, dangerous highs and lows that drastically and dangerously impact their health.  Similarly, even when in ongoing mental health treatment, a series of good days can be interrupted by periods of downward spiraling or numbness, and worsening symptoms as we attempt to balance medications and work through both past and new traumas.  Along the same lines as the fact that we refuse to take the blame for our illness, we are also under no obligation to heal on anyone else’s schedule or whim.  It is our illness, our treatment, and we will take as long as we need to take to heal fully and properly, even if it takes a lifetime.

Do not remind us that “every cloud has a silver lining” or tell us to “look on the bright side“, suggesting that we need to look for something positive at the core of our struggle.  Likewise, please never tell us that “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” or tell us that “it is God’s will“, as if our suffering was some divine gift or that it will be worth it in the long run.  Again, it is an illness, a medical diagnosis.  You would not confront a diabetic who must have their feet amputated due to their condition and suggest that they would somehow come out stronger for their loss.  You would not imply to a patient who cannot keep down any food because they are undergoing chemotherapy that the silver lining is that they always did want to lose a few pounds.  You would not tell anyone that their illness was a blessing in disguise, that they should be grateful for their suffering and pain.  Comments like those would be not only wildly inappropriate but also extremely insensitive, as well.  You would offer the person suffering your compassion, sympathy and support.  People with mental illnesses deserve the same.  There is nothing positive about our diagnosis or our struggle so please don’t insist we look for a silver lining or a bright side that is not there.

Please don’t tell us that “other people have it worse“, as if our struggle is insignificant because someone else has struggled more.  Don’t ask us “what do you even have to be depressed about?“, expecting us to justify our diagnosis or quantify our suffering so you can determine its validity.  A mental illness is a bonafide medical diagnosis that deserves acknowledgement and actual medical treatment regardless of its severity in comparison to someone else’s.  It is always a serious health condition that can continue to worsen if left untreated.  You wouldn’t shrug off anyone’s cancer diagnosis as trivial or be so unsympathetic as to suggest their tumors were insignificant because someone else had larger ones.  Cancer is always taken seriously.  Mental illness should be, as well.

If we trust you enough to open up about our diagnosis, please don’t shut us down by telling us “there are just some things you just shouldn’t talk about” or reminding us that “some things should be kept private“.  That is ignorance and stigma talking.  Yes, we understand that mental illness is uncomfortable to discuss.  So is any other serious medical diagnosis.  The difference is that families and friends will discuss other illnesses and the impact they will have on everyone’s lives.  We sincerely apologize for any discomfort our diagnosis might give you, but please know that we are not confiding in you hoping you can solve it or make anything better.  We are sharing our diagnosis because we consider you an integral part of our lives and we want you to be aware of everything that is going on.  Don’t tell us that we shouldn’t talk about mental illness as if it is something we should be ashamed of having.  The biggest reason this diagnosis has become so rampant in society today is because no one talked about it for far too long.  No one talked and nobody sought treatment.  But silence won’t make the problem go away.  Health issues don’t vanish because you refuse to acknowledge them.  It will only make it worse.

Please stop shaming us for our diagnosis altogether or our efforts to seek treatment.  Don’t tell us that “all we really need is some fresh air and some running shoes” in order to feel better.  Don’t tell us that “only weak people rely on medication” or suggest we try vitamin regimens, scented oils or other homeopathic remedies instead of what we have been prescribed.  We have seen actual doctors.  Medical professionals have given us a verifiable medical diagnosis and prescribed us the appropriate medications to treat that diagnosis.  You wouldn’t shame a diabetic for using insulin to balance their body so please stop shaming us for taking our prescriptions to balance our minds.  You wouldn’t tell a cancer patient that they didn’t need chemo, to just go for a brisk run or take a nice, long bath instead.  That is because it is widely accepted that chemotherapy is used to treat cancer and insulin to treat diabetes.  If you are willing to accept other medical diagnoses and treatments as valid, please accept ours, as well.

Please don’t attack us, demanding to know “what have you even done with yourself lately?” or otherwise question why we are not able to function as well as a healthy person.  Don’t interrogate us about what we have and have not accomplished recently, either, as if our level of productivity must meet your standards or our activity must be on par with yours.  Having a mental illness takes a lot out of a person, both mentally and physically.  It is perfectly acceptable for someone who has just undergone chemotherapy to spend a day in bed if they so need it.  If a diabetic has a sugar crash and feels under the weather, others will suggest they go lay down and feel better.  Healing and recovery time is acceptable for all other illnesses.  It should be for mental illnesses, too.

For so many years, mental illness was treated as something shameful, something you just didn’t discuss, something whispered about in dark corners.  With the continuing rise of suicides, addictions and other mental health crisis in our society, mental illness is being spoken about today on a scale previously unimaginable.  I understand that it might take some time for everyone to fully understand how to openly discuss our diagnosis with both compassion and respect after being shrouded in secrecy and stigma for so long.  When unsure how to proceed, many people turn to old cliches and outdated advice that they believe have stood the test of time.  However, many of those statements and sayings are not at all appropriate or applicable to mental illnesses.  If you are unsure what to say to someone with a mental illness, a good place to start would be to ask yourself if you would say those words to someone else with any other serious illness.  If you cannot imagine saying it to someone with cancer or diabetes, for example, it’s a good bet that it is not an appropriate response to our diagnosis, either.

After all, people with mental illnesses are not asking for special treatment.  We are just asking to be treated with the same courtesy you would treat anyone else who is ill.

Advertisements

I Have Depression.. But I am Happy..

I have struggled with depression my entire life, in part due to a genetic mutation passed down to me from my parents that affects the way my body metabolizes specific chemicals my brain needs to moderate my moods.  I regularly go through horrendous downward spirals where I feel completely broken and worthless, where life feels utterly hopeless.  I struggle with long periods of numbness where I have difficulty functioning or even finding the motivation to get out of bed.  On bad days, I will cry until my face is sore and my voice is hoarse, and it is unlikely I will be able to accomplish much more than basic self-care.  I am battling an illness that warps my very perceptions of life and continuously exhausts and pains me both physically and mentally.

But I am happy.

I have an amazing fiance who is very supportive of me and my diagnosis.  I have healthy, kind, smart and all-around wonderful children who have grown into incredible adults.  My fiance’s children are both amazing, as well. Together we have all formed a beautiful, blended family that I love with all my heart and am proud to call my own.  I have a team of doctors who actually listen to me and a treatment plan that is slowly but surely helping improve my quality of life.  And I have a blossoming writing career that has given me a true sense of purpose and an ability to help others in need.  I have many wonderful blessings in my life to be grateful for, many reasons to be happy.

Yet I have been diagnosed with depression.

That is because a mental illness like depression has nothing to do with happiness.  Depression is not caused by being in the wrong frame of mind or just not trying hard enough to be happy.  Having a depression diagnosis has nothing to do with feeling sad, a little blue or under the weather.  People with depression aren’t being Negative Nancys or Debbie Downers who just need to learn to lighten up and look on the bright side.  My diagnosis wouldn’t just disappear if I just tried to smile a little harder or maintained a more positive outlook on life.  My depression has nothing to do with whether or not I am happy.

I have trained myself to find reasons to smile everyday.  I am usually the first to look for something positive in even the roughest of situations.  No matter how hard my own day might feel, I always try to show compassion and kindness to others.  If nothing else, I am grateful each day I wake up and thankful of all the loving and supportive people in my life and share that sentiment regularly.  I am hopeful for the possibilities the future may have in store for me, as well.  Some of my friends lovingly joke that I am the happiest, most positive little depressed person they know.

Yet I continue to struggle with my depression diagnosis.

My brain does not care whether or not I am happy or grateful, whether I am hopeful, compassionate or kind.  My mental illness is caused by my brain not working properly, much like a diabetic’s pancreas malfunctioning causes their condition.  I have no more control over having a mental illness than someone else having diabetes, heart disease or another medical condition they may have been passed genetically.  Yes, events in my life may have further exasperated my mental illness, much like having excessive sugar might worsen a person’s diabetes or having foods high in cholesterol might affect the severity of heart disease, but my condition preceded any of the traumas and abuses I have endured over the years.  I have even sought treatment to help resolve those issues to the best of my ability, yet my depression has remained.

Because depression is an illness, a medical diagnosis with both mental and physical causations.

It is not all in my head.

It is not a state of mind or an emotion.

Depression isn’t about being sad.

The cure for depression is not happiness.

Like any other illness, depression needs ongoing medical treatment.  Doctors need to not only diagnose the condition, but also to isolate and treat both the mental and physical reasons for the illness, as well. Though doctors often utilize psychological treatments like therapy, meditation and mindfulness, they usually also include psychiatric methods and medications to help treat the physical causation.  That is because doctors recognize mental illnesses such as depression as a verifiable disability that deserves a comprehensive, multi-pronged treatment.

In cases like mine where my depression has a genetic causation, my diagnosis is permanent.  I was born with it much like some children are born diabetic.  You would not blame a child for being born with a pancreas that was incapable of functioning properly so please don’t blame me for the fact that I was born with organs that malfunctioned, as well.  The only difference in my case are the organs affected.  No matter how happy I am or how positive my outlook is on life, my liver will never be able to metabolize the substances my brain needs in order to function properly.  I will have this medical diagnosis and need ongoing treatment until the day I die.

If I confide in you that I am struggling with depression, please don’t try to encourage me to try to be happier and more positive, or point out all the blessings I have in my life.  I am happy and grateful already.  You do not need to remind me to be hopeful for the future because I already am.  Please don’t blame me for my diagnosis either, insinuating that I wouldn’t be ill if I just tried a little harder.  I did not ask for this diagnosis, nor did I cause it.  What I need from you is the same compassion, understanding and support you would give anyone else with any other medical diagnosis.

Because, though I am already happy, knowing you were doing your best to be supportive and treat me with the same respect you would someone struggling with other illnesses would make me even happier.

mightylogo

Republished on the Mighty on 4/4/19.

“..Must Be Nice..”

Whenever my ex and I used to fight, one of his favorite go to mudslings was always that “it must be nice to..”, usually followed by something like “sit home and do nothing but wallow in your own misery” or “sit on your ass feeling sorry for yourself while others actually work for a living” or a hundred other potshots that minimized my struggles with mental illness.

Sadly, it’s not an uncommon sentiment when it comes to mental illness.

“Boo hoo.  You’re sad?  Lots of people have problems. Guess what? Everyone does.  You know what everyone else does when they have problems? They get off their ass, deal with them and keep going.”

“You think you have it bad? What do you even have to be depressed about?  Plenty of people have it worse than you do.  You need to stop making excuses and get your shit together.”

“Everyone has shit they’re dealing with.  What makes your problems and your feelings so special that you should get to sit home while everyone else has to bust their ass?”

I have heard those words, and many other sentiments like them, for years.

I have struggled with mental illness, more specifically depression, anxiety and ptsd,  my entire life.  A good portion of my diagnosis is based upon a genetic mutation which has, in essence, been starving my brain for the chemicals it needs to moderate my moods.  I cannot remember a time when I didn’t struggle, didn’t suffer from severe bouts of anxiety and depression.  My mental illness does not come and go.  It is a battle every single day.

I fought for years to be semi-functional, collapsing again and again into mental breakdowns as the compounding stress of trying to keep myself together proved time and again to be too much to bear.  I became a pro at wearing a smiling mask so that everyone else wouldn’t worry even though I felt like I was dying inside.

“..Must be nice..”

I can tell you, without a doubt, that no it is not.  I would not wish this on anyone.

I spend my life smiling through the tears, lying to everyone I love that I’m okay because I don’t want anyone to worry because I know there’s nothing they could do even if they wanted to.  I’ve learned it’s just easier to pretend I’m okay than try to explain things I know they could never understand.

I spend my life going through cycles of numbness where I feel immobilized, incapable of functioning at all, and downward spirals where my own brain urges me to destroy myself, to tear myself apart, because it says I am useless, worthless, a good-for-nothing waste of space.

I spend my life struggling to find joy in anything.  Food often tastes bland, music nothing more than background noise.  Things that make others smile and laugh are often met with apathy because I am so mentally and emotionally drained just from existing that the pleasure centers in my brain often don’t even respond to happy stimuli.  I am not being a Debbie Downer – I honestly often am so numb I feel nothing at all.

I spend my life fighting with myself, with my own brain, because when even the slightest thing goes wrong, I blame myself and my brain begins another tirade about how worthless I am, how I am a burden to everyone in my life and the world would be better without me in it.  No matter how many times I’ve told myself that it’s all lies, that voice never shuts up, never goes away.  It began as other people’s voices but over the years, it has become my own.

I spend my life teetering on the edge of not wanting to die but not exactly wanting to keep living like this, either.  Everything feels too hard, too much, too overwhelming, too agonizing.  All I want most days is just for the pain, the pressure, to just stop long enough for me to catch my breath.  I often curl up in a ball and cry because I just can’t take anymore.  Through my tears, I beg “no more”.

I spend my life worrying constantly about everything that has gone wrong and every scenario in the future that might go wrong because they all feel not only plausible and possible but probable.  My mind is always racing, always thinking, always calculating, always warning me of everything bad that could ever happen.  It never shuts off, never shuts up, going on and on for hours.  It’s the reason I have so much trouble sleeping.

I spend my life taking everything personally because I honestly believe it all must somehow be my fault.  Somewhere deep in my subconscious, I believe I am fundamentally broken so I always seek out my blame in everything, even when my common sense reassures me that I am blameless.  I apologize constantly, even when I’m unsure what I may have done wrong, or if I know it was something I had no control over, because there always has to be something or someone to blame and it might as well be me.

I spend my life in fear of every dark corner, every raised voice or hand, because my past has shown me that nothing is safe so I wander through life like a deer caught in the headlights, jumping at every little thing and withdrawing at the first sign of danger, real or imaginary.  I’m obsessive about many things like locking doors and keeping my shower curtain slightly open because I never feel safe, not even in my own home where nothing bad has ever happened.

I spend my life struggling to love myself enough to do basic things like eating and showering because there’s a constant booming voice in my head that asks “why bother?” and tells me I’m not even worth the effort.  Though I would bend over backwards for others or give them the shirt off my back if they needed it, I have trouble some days even justifying “wasting food on myself” because someone else might enjoy it more.

I spend my life feeling alone no matter how many other people are around.  My illness isolates me, convincing me that no one else could possibly understand, nor would they even truly care.  I feel like a constant burden, a bother, that it would be better for everyone if I just stayed away.  Even in a room full of people, I feel alone in all the world.

I spend my life afraid to open up to anyone I care about about all I am going through because I do not want to scare them away.  I do not want them to see me as too broken or too damaged, not worthy of their time or their love.  Whenever any of my mental illness surfaces around others, I am sure it will be the straw that broke the camel’s back, the reason that they, too, go away.  The worst part is that I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

I spend my life going through cycles of physical ailments like severe chest pains and throwing up blood because my mental illness keeps presenting itself in physical ways.  I’m not honestly sure whether I might have other digestive or heart issues because they’ve been so often linked to my anxiety in the past that I don’t even bring them up to the doctor anymore.

I spend every single day of my life in a constant battle with my own mind, a battle nobody else can even see that I am fighting.

..and I can thoroughly assure you, it is NOT nice at all.

There is a reason my doctors have listed me as disabled.  There is a reason they say I cannot work.  They are among a very few people who I have been completely honest with about my struggles because I opened up to them knowing that they were trained to deal with cases such as mine.  Admittedly, though, there have been times I have minimized some of my struggles even with them because seeing their eyes water at my pain is heart-wrenching for me.

No, I do not have a physical disability that you can see.  I am not in a wheelchair nor am I hooked up to machinery to keep me alive.  No, I am not wearing a cast, a brace nor have lost my hair to chemo.  I have no physical signs to point to that would illustrate my disability for those around me.  But that doesn’t mean that I am not disabled.  It doesn’t mean that I am not suffering, not struggling, not in need of help.

I am not being lazy nor am I sitting home taking it easy.  I wish I didn’t have a mental illness.  I wish I could do more, contribute more.  I wish I could even take better care of myself.  I wish a lot of things.  But I would not wish this diagnosis or this struggle on anyone.  I am trying my best to take care of myself, trying to keep living, trying to make it to each new day.  I am fighting to survive, whether anyone else can see it or not.

I am not looking for anyone to feel sorry for me because of my diagnosis.  It is what it is.  Pity won’t take away mental illness any more than it will cure cancer.  All I truly hope for is compassion and understanding.  Acknowledgment that, even though you might not be able to see it, it still exists and deserves treatment just as much as a physical ailment would.

..and please don’t say “it must be nice..” that I am at home dealing with my mental illness because I can assure you, it isn’t nice at all.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 3/2/18.

yahoonews

Republished on Yahoo News – Canada on 3/2/18.

Republished on Yahoo News – UK on 3/2/18.

yahoolife

Republished on Yahoo Lifestyle on 3/2/18.