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It's OK If They Don't Understand Your Mental Illness

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There’s a lot of stigma around mental illness, which only makes living with one even more difficult. Especially when it feels like your mental illness is controlling your life, and yet everybody else in your world seems to be taking the reigns of their own lives just fine.

And for those who don’t experience it, it’s hard to understand. They’ve never had the depression that keeps them in bed for days, or the body dysmorphic disorder that makes them take showers in the dark. They’ve been lucky.

Some of them may even believe mental illnesses are:

  • a lack of will-power
  • what defines the person
  • for attention-seekers
  • an excuse not to be responsible for yourself

All wrong of course – mental illness is a disease of the mind. It takes control of the brain, the computer-like organ inside your head, controlling thoughts, feeling and even changing some of your behaviors.

Mental illnesses can develop at any stage in life, can be managed with therapy and self-care and, depending on the severity, can let people live an almost “normal” life. I say “almost normal” because most of us with mental illnesses can hide them pretty damn well — sometimes we can just about cope with a normal day, but sometimes we can’t, and that’s fine, too.

I find it unbelievable when I meet someone who hasn’t had a mental illness. To have never hidden in bed because that’s the only place that feels safe or to never have suicidal thoughts is an out-of-this-world concept in my eyes. I can’t imagine what that sort of life is like, so no wonder many people can’t understand what my life is like.

Some of those who don’t understand do their best by trying to treat it like a physical illness, because that’s the only sort of illness they can relate to. They know that hot water bottles make tummies feel better and that resting when you’ve broken your leg is the way to recovery. They know a headache can be caused by dehydration and that exhaustion can be from not eating right or not sleeping enough. Without the experience of a mental illness, they’re not sure how to treat you or how you wish to be treated.

If somebody says the wrong thing, yet you know they have good intentions at heart, I think it’s important to remember they simply don’t understand what you’re going through, but are trying their best to make you feel better the only way they know how. I’d rather have somebody who tries to help than someone who’s too scared away by the stigma of mental illness altogether, or who thinks they can do nothing for me because it’s “all in my head.” FYI: It is in my head because that’s where my brain is.

Even though it is infuriating at times, it is OK for somebody to not understand mental illness. Not everyone has experienced a mental health problem and therefore not everyone can be empathetic. But, just because they can’t empathize, doesn’t mean you can’t educate them. Tell them how they can support you, and if they care, they’ll listen and learn.

And just remember — there are plenty of people you can talk to that will understand (like me). Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your disability, disease, or mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold this misconception? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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The 3 Best 'Outfits' My Therapist Left Me

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I had a great therapist for many years. It only took me like 40 years to find her — after lying to pretty much every other therapist I ever had. I mean, seriously, was I really going to open up and show some stranger with a 50-minute hour rule that I was not all pretty and smart and capable and God knows what else? But then I found this incredible counselor just when I was trying to climb out of a deep hole that had sucked me down and sucked me dry.

This therapist I found, she was honest. Straightforward. Kind. And she challenged me. All the time. Our sessions were like really great intellectual debates. Well, not at first. At first they were me huddled in a corner of her couch, arms wrapped around tight, legs crossed over and tears of shame and pain and grief mixed in with fleeting moments of joy and acceptance as I made my way back up and into my life.

And then, when I was again a functioning member of society (whatever the hell that looks like) she and I got to really spar. I would come in with my deeply ingrained belief systems and she would raise questions. Not to make me agree with her. Never was her intention to convince me I was wrong. But to make me see my choices, see my beliefs. See them clearly.  And then mindfully choose what worked for me. I was retrying everything on. One item at a time. Outfitting my internal closet. Keeping the things that still sat in my body beautifully while discarding those things that no longer fit.

It was a long process. Many years. And then one day, I didn’t need her anymore. We both knew it. I had a wardrobe that worked for me. I was ready to walk my life on my own. But I can still hear her voice in my mind when I am faced with difficult decisions or challenging situations or tormenting moments. She is not telling me what to do. She is telling me to go through that closet I created and pull from it something to put on that will get me though what I am facing at that moment. I have many different outfits. For many different occasions.

From this incredible interaction and truly life saving relationship I walked away with a great wardrobe. Now, I am not saying that my sense of style — my best life practices — are necessarily right for you. But I do feel blessed that I have created some really great ways to be in the world. Here are three favorites:

1. Life is not fair. 

Let me say this again: Life is not fair. That crap we were fed, and our kids are being overloaded with, that everyone gets a trophy and we’re all winners, this is not true. Life is not fair. And it’s not pretty. It’s messy and complicated and doesn’t go the way we want it to. And it is a huge disservice we are perpetuating this myth that we’re supposed to be happy all the time and things will be nice and fun and fair (that word again.)  So what happens is that we have no skills to deal with the hard stuff. The tough stuff. The really lousy stuff and the stuff that is just uncomfortable, too. And so one of my favorite outfits — I learned to sit in my discomfort. To see how it feels. Feel how it feels. And be OK with it. I learned to sit in it rather than trying to numb it or ignore it. I learned to sit in my discomfort and to honor it. To nurture it. The beauty that is being human often times lives in the struggles and the lessons we are able to learn in the process. So I try to love the lessons life is teaching me. And then I learn to move on. Not to fix it necessarily, but to let it go. This is not easy and I am not always good at it. But I practice every day.

2. Don’t lay your unhappiness on someone else.

It is no one’s responsibility to make another person happy. Or to fill up their empty spaces. Yes, I love my kids and they fill me with joy. And my husband is a wonderful man. And I have deep, good friends and a very full, really lovely life. And yes, I am happy in these relationships that I have. But being happy is the blessing, not the purpose, of these relationships.  And my responsibility to these relationships is to take care of them. By practicing self-care. And practicing self-love. By not needing input from others but rather meeting others in my life as a full, complete, person. Again, not easy. But I have learned to feel the difference — when I am engaging because I want to give to a relationship and when I am engaging because I am looking to get something from it. The latter does not feel good at all.

And finally,

3. Own your shit.

I try hard to not put blame on other people or circumstances when something bugs me, or upsets me or makes me really mad. Because it’s usually not about them at all. It is about me. And the answers are right there, deep within me. And deep within you, too. Truly, they are. So I ask myself: what am I supposed to learn here; why does my sister’s nasty mood, my kid’s messy room, the neighbor’s flippant stare, effect me? What is truly going on here?  What are my triggers? And I become aware. It is not really about the fact that my daughter does not put her clothes away. It is about something deep within me. Maybe I don’t feel respected because I bought those clothes for her. Maybe I am not able to be my best self when things are messy around me? I try to figure out what is truly going on, inside me, and then communicate that with those I love and who love me. I do not tell them that they are wrong. Because usually they are not. They are doing their own thing just as I am doing mine. And so I figure out what I am struggling with and then I let them in, and share how I feel. And once they understand me, it is then their choice whether to honor me or not. Chances are the people in my life that love me will honor the feelings I have. I am pretty sure the people in your life will do the same.

So there you have it, three good outfits. I have many more but these are my favorite. I thought I would loan these three outfits to you. Feel free to try them on. In fact, keep what fits. That’s how it works.

Follow this journey on I’ve Just Gotta Say This

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s the best thing a medical professional has said to you related to your (or a loved one’s) disability, disease or mental illness?  Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When You Feel Like You're Not 'Sick Enough' to Treat Your Mental Illness

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“I just don’t think you have enough AIDS to get treatment.” “I think we’ll wait to begin your chemo until you have more cancer.” “Your Ebola isn’t advanced enough for us to do anything about it. Go home, rest up and when it gets worse give us a call.”

They all sound ridiculous, don’t they? If you’d never tell someone their illness is only a little symptomatic, why make those with mentally illnesses feel as though they aren’t sick enough for treatment?

The idea that we must be more ill to seek help pervades the minds of so many of us with mental illnesses. I battled it myself for years before finally capitulating. People I respect have quietly admitted feeling guilty for taking their pills or seeing a therapist. The idea of not being sick enough to warrant treatment runs concurrent to feeling as though we should be able to handle it ourselves.

Despite knowing on a cognitive level what mental illness is, the illness itself often poisons our mind and keeps us from seeking the help we need. People with diagnosed mental illnesses live significantly shorter lives than those without. Knowing that, we should be making it easier for people to seek treatment, not significantly more difficult.

I don’t mean to imply that medical professionals slide us onto the back burner, though I’m sure it happens. Minimizing our own mental maladies is a self-inflicted wound, a brutal act we’ve practiced to perfection. Because we’ve been conditioned to treat what we can see, our mental illnesses become low priority, below even the mundane like yearly dental exams or physicals.

We can’t see it so it doesn’t exist. There isn’t a definitive, easy test for mental illness. I can’t go to the doctor and ask her to give me a test for my depression as if I had virus or infection. We can’t do a body scan and identify the mass that is responsible for a person’s anxiety. Because these illnesses can’t be identified in the traditional sense, we often feel as though we’re making them up, that they are phantoms.

The thought process behind that is as damaging as the disease itself. It feeds into the false narrative that a person is losing control of their life. “What’s wrong with me that I can’t be happy with what I have. I’m always sad. I can’t do this anymore.” The chances of a positive outcome shrink the longer we let our disease go unchecked.

Many of us grew up with our only exposure to mental illness via the television, seeing only the mumbling, cowering homeless man, shrieking vagabond or crazed killer. We didn’t see the mom suffering silently through postpartum depression. We didn’t understand how a popular teacher could choose to end his life. We missed the signs because we didn’t know them.

Many of us learned about it by having it, and that left us completely unprepared for dealing with the fallout. Nobody told us our minds could betray us. They didn’t tell us help was available and they didn’t let us know there shouldn’t be shame in asking for it. We were left to sink or swim, and far too many of us disappeared beneath the waves never to be seen again.

Yes. I still harbor feelings of guilt when I seek treatment, as if I’m stealing it from someone who needs it more. I hesitate to reach out to friends because I believe their lives are made that much more difficult by my presence and I think twice before telling my family I need some “me” time. I still feel shame for asking for help because I have assigned my own stigma.

Having a mental illness is like having a liar living in your head. He sounds like you. He uses your words, tones and inflections. He is persistent and patient, waiting for the right moment to strike and seeking out cracks or soft spots in your cognitive blockades. He will tell you not only that you are unworthy of help, but unworthy of life itself.

That’s where the problem begins really. Our heads tell us we aren’t worth helping. And then society tells us to “toughen up” if we’re just a little depressed, or not anxious enough. And yes, we grade many illnesses based upon their severity, and it’s OK to do so with mental illness.

However, we shouldn’t feel guilty for seeking people just because we are “less sick” than others. We shouldn’t have to wait until we’re so far gone, we’re almost lost. We need more support in the beginning, when these issues first arise, and when these systems are in place — we can’t be afraid to use them. 

The affliction alone makes us worthy of seeking help. It has nothing to do with how far down into the darkness we have fallen. Having fallen helplessly into the abyss, no matter how deeply, means help is both necessary and warranted.

Follow this journey at Shawn Henfling.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your disability, disease, or mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold this misconception? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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What I Learned by Not Validating My Son’s Depressed Feelings

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The first time I can recall the purpose of validation as a parent was when my son was 11 years old. We had just spent the day at Universal Studios as a family, and we were having dinner in a restaurant when my son blurted out, “There is no point in living.”

I was surprised by this out-of-place statement.

I should have said, “Are you telling us that you feel like you don’t have a reason to live?”

I should have then waited for some kind of response and depending on the answer said, “What is making you feel this way?” or “There must be a reason why you said that.”

Then I should have said “It must make you sad to feel that there is no point in living.”

I should have listened and later had a follow up conversation about this topic, exploring my son’s emotions and allowing him to feel safe and acknowledged.

But I didn’t.

Instead I said, “What? We just had such a fun day, how can you say there is no point in living? You have such a good life…” and I continued to say all those things parents say to their child when we want to “fix” a problem.

However fixing the problem is not always the best solution.

This was the first sign showing me  my son was depressed and struggling with intense emotions.

He reached out, but I didn’t listen.

Oh, I took him to therapy and tried to help him, but I didn’t listen in the way he needed me to listen.

That was a pivotal moment in his life.

I didn’t know how important it was or the importance of validation. From that moment, my son withdrew and kept his feelings buried and locked away, leading to a destructive path that took years of counseling and hard work to break free.

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about that day and wondering how things could have looked if I had reacted differently and how would that have affected my son’s future.

Validation should be used for most parenting situations, not just the one I described. It takes a lot of practice to get it right, especially if you are trying to validate someone who is angry.

Validation is one of the most important elements to learn before parenting any child. It allows your child to feel seen, heard and accepted and to know that what they say matters and is understood.

What lessons about validation have I learned to use in my everyday parenting?

my son and I in the daffodils
My son and I in the daffodils.

1. Listen

When your child has taken the bold step to tell you about their feelings, listen to what they say. Sometimes their emotions are easy to see (crying and yelling) and understand. If they won’t communicate with you, listen to what they say to others and what they avoid
talking about.

If your child or teen is behaving inappropriately or aggressively, it is best to remove yourself from the situation and listen to them when they have calmed down.

2. Acknowledge

Interact with a sound, a gesture or a word when your child is speaking, showing you hear them. Often the best way to let your child know they have been heard is to rephrase and repeat. This clarifies what was said and tells them you are listening.

3. Accept

You do not have to agree with what your child says or the feelings they have, you just have to accept them.

Do not diminish their feelings if you disagree with them. Everyone deserves to have their feelings accepted without judgment. For example if your child is angry because they want a later curfew than you are willing to give, don’t say, “Too bad, I’m the parent, I make the
rules.” Instead say, “I understand you are angry about the rules. It is not my intention to make you angry. I am the parent and I try to keep you safe, maybe we can have a discussion later where we both give our points of view.”

4. Mend

I do not mean fix their problem or offer a solution.

Mend by helping them discover a choice on their own. Ask what they think they should do. Often if your child opens up to you about their feelings, they don’t want a solution, they just want to be heard. There may be times when your child needs more than you are capable of giving. If that is the case, seek out professional advice.

Don’t wait. Validate them now and encourage them to want to talk to you.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

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3 Ways a Therapist Is Different Than Your BFF

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Therapy involves a relationship with another person where you should feel safe, heard, unconditionally accepted, non-judged and supported. So how is coming to therapy different than just talking to your BFF? There are several important differences between the support of a friend and the therapeutic relationship. Here are three ways my own therapeutic approach is different from friendship:

 

1. In therapy, the focus is on you. In a friendship, both you and your friend listen to one another’s struggles and support each other. In the therapeutic relationship, the focus is solely on you, and even during times when the therapist does share something (this is referred to as “self-disclosure”), it is with you in mind. For example, I share with clients that I have also suffered with an anxiety disorder with the intention of normalizing the experience of anxiety and help my clients feel understood, while at the same time acknowledging that every person’s experience is unique to them. A therapist, unlike a friend, will never talk about his or her own problems since the focus of the therapeutic relationship is on you.

2. A therapist will be objective. Because they do not have a personal relationship with you the way a friend does, they will not be influenced by personal feelings. They will be unbiased when looking at the situation and hearing your story.

3. A therapist has been specifically trained (usually at the minimum of a Master’s degree) in therapeutic conversation, assessment and interventions. Although it often may feel like a casual conversation, the therapist may ask questions during your session to help you uncover meaning and reflect on life experiences and how those have shaped your current situation. They may help you make connections to discover hidden emotions. They may help you look at your thoughts and how your self-talk contributes to your feelings

A good friend will be caring and supportive during difficult moments. A good therapist will be empowering, compassionate and insightful. Having both of these people in your life is a win-win.

Andrea Addington, MSW, RSW has a private practice in Moncton, New Bruswick, Canada, where she specializes in anxiety counselling. You can visit her website here or like her on Facebook.

The Mighty is asking the following: What is a part of your or a loved one’s disease, disability or mental illness that no one is aware of? Why is it time to start talking about it? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

 

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You Can't Talk Someone Out of Having a Mental Illness

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Many people who subscribe to the think-yourself-out-of-it school of mental illness recovery will attempt to talk sick people out of their sickness by telling them all the reasons why logically their mental illness doesn’t make sense. This is the approach of people who say, “Anorexia doesn’t make you attractive, being that skinny isn’t pretty,” or “Don’t panic, there’s nothing to be scared of!”

Ultimately these statements are usually incredibly unhelpful.

One particularly ridiculous subset of this, however, is the tendency to try to steer people away from mental illness (as though it were a choice) by telling them the ways in which they are making or will make themselves physically sick (as though it’s the only kind of sickness that really matters). Telling people with bulimia that they are destroying their teeth and oesophagus, or people with anxiety they are giving themselves high blood pressure or severely depressed people that eating terribly and getting no exercise will take a toll, is supposedly helpful because it associates the mental illness with a tangible, physical problem which is more off-putting than the mental illness itself.

The implicit assumption these sentiments come from is that a person with a mental illness is hurting themselves for the sake of sustaining their mental illness, rather than the truth — which is that mental illnesses hurt people because they are illnesses. In reverse, it sounds ridiculous – the idea of telling somebody, for instance, not to get cancer because it will make them depressed. And yet it seems to make sense to many people that recovery is just a case of showing somebody they could be in “real” danger, to make them see that mental illness isn’t a good idea.

Illnesses are illnesses, not choices. The physical aspects of my conditions are part and parcel of being sick, and I sometimes get particularly scared, as someone with Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), about what my extreme diet will do for my health in the long run. The thing is, I can tell myself perhaps I’m shortening my lifespan and it doesn’t cure me; it just makes me sad. In my opinion, being kind to a loved one who is suffering and helping them to see the illness as the thing that is abusive and hurtful is far, far more productive than simply pointing out one specific aspect of their pain as though it can cure them. Often I think we with mental illnesses already feel guilty enough, and we are not responsible for our own suffering.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your disability, disease, or mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold this misconception? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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