The Panic of Small Talk When You Have a Mental Illness


“And what do you do?”

I freeze. My stomach flopped at “Nice to meet you,” bracing with panic for the dreaded question which too frequently tags along.

We’ve all been here. We’ve all experienced meeting new people and coinciding social banter. You know the usual: Where are you from? What’s the weather like? Where did you study? What do you do? But for someone with chronic life-threatening mental illness this is the type of conversation I like to avoid at all costs. This is the type of conversation which deflates self-esteem, inviting self-inflicted insults such
as You’re pathetic. What a loser. Why can’t you just be normal like this person?

Normal. What does this even mean?

On my journey I’ve come to understand it as a fantasy word, a word thrown about so casually and so frequently that it couldn’t possibly have any true value left to it. To me, it simply doesn’t. I used to waste time with regret and wishing I could be normal, “like everyone else,” only to discover “everyone else” has personal problems to deal with and life challenges to face.

So I’ve tossed the word from my vocabulary and chosen a more fitting term: Socially Acceptable Life. By this I refer to typical societal standards which seem to pervade our sub-conscious from an early age. As we grow up, clear themes emerge, pressuring us into the socially acceptable box: close-knit family life, graduate high school and leave for college, follow closely with a Masters degree or corporate job, marriage and family.

The image of success.

This is not my story, and I can tell you from experience, to not fit into this box standard makes for feelings of isolation and unworthiness. Despite growing awareness and partial de-stigmatization, it is still not socially acceptable to have mental illness. Furthermore, it is not exactly a prime conversation-starter. To respond to the question “What do you do?” with the honest truth of “I try not to die” is not considered socially acceptable.

Hence why small talk makes me so uneasy. The majority of the past 13 years, dating back to my early teens, has been spent in a variety of hospitals on medical and psychiatry floors trying to survive the potentially fatal complications of anorexia nervosa and mood disorders, including suicide attempts. This has stunted my education and career development, among other “normalcies” of daily life: dating, friendships, travel experiences, and plain ordinary 20-something-year-old shenanigans. I have, in essence, been robbed of a lot of life. Listing why I cannot keep a job or finish a college course is not exactly meet-and-greet-conversation-worthy. Moreover, knowing this much leads to great amounts of social anxiety and heavy
blows to self-esteem.

The truth is, while education and career statuses may be great conversation to some, it simply is none of your business: I don’t need to prove anything. Unfortunately, society places a lot of emphasis on such ideals as success. Sometimes my biggest success is staying out of hospital for X months. Some days success looks like self-care or making it to all my appointments. And there are still times when a successful day is found inside a hospital, where perhaps I asked for or simply accepted help; or perhaps I took steps toward wellness which I was unwilling to take the day before. These are not typical bragging points, but to many of us, this success is found nestled
among the seemingly mundane tasks that keep mental illness at bay.

I may not live a socially acceptable life, but I certainly have accomplished a lot in my lifetime thus far. My life is definitely nothing like I imagined it would be as an ambitious youngster, and although maybe not my favorite topic of conversation, it’s given me experiences no amount of tuition money could buy.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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Thinkstock photo by Digital Vision.

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