What People Who Think They Understand Mental Illness Don’t Know


When I tell people I have bipolar disorder, some people say they “understand my experience.” This is fine if they have also been affected by mental illness. However, I can’t help but feel slightly skeptical when people tell me they understand when they haven’t been touched by mental illness. Unless you have been personally affected by it, you don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when I travel to all the pharmacies in my region so I don’t have to face the embarrassment of going to the same one every weekend because I have at least six prescriptions to fill. Despite these efforts, all the pharmacists still know my name, my meds and my doses. The same can be said for my local pathology clinic where all the nurses know my name, my meds and my blood tests because being on medication that can potentially be toxic requires frequent pathology.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when I get to the end of winter utterly relieved that I have gotten through my seasonal depression alive. You don’t know mental illness when that same relief is coupled with dismay and despair at having to increase my medications because I’m at risk of summer mania. Yet, these medications make me feel so lethargic, apathetic and flat, question what the point is because it feels similar to depression. I wonder which is worse because they sure as hell don’t feel good either way.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when I haven’t felt normally tired since I was 18, before things really went down hill. You don’t know mental illness when the thing I miss most is waking up refreshed because my medications make me feel groggy. You don’t know mental illness when the evening is the worst part of the day because the grogginess begins to lift, and I get a glimpse of what life is like without a foggy head. Yet, cruelly it’s also the same time of day when I have to take the medications that cause the foggy head.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when my friends suggest a holiday away, even a night away, and I have an internal battle between wanting to go and be a normal 26-year-old and feeling utterly terrified of going. I know that even a slight disruption to my sleep routine can make me manic. You don’t know mental illness when I hear of my friends’ big weekend, and I feel bitterly jealous. If I were to do the same, then I’d probably end up in the hospital manic.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when a friend or family member says, “You seem quite high lately,” when I think I have been going well. Those simple words makes my blood run cold and feel like a punch in the guts. Worse still is when strangers tell me to “smile” when I’m depressed, and I’m just congratulating myself for getting out of the house and keeping myself alive. You don’t know mental illness when I constantly feel like I am being examined as if I’m in a petri dish, and this makes me constantly assess my own actions and words until I feel like an alien in my own skin.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when the side effects of medications that impact other areas of my health have already begun. You don’t know mental illness when I work hard every day to stay physically fit, but I already have high cholesterol and an underactive thyroid. So at 26, I need to manage health conditions a 26-year-old shouldn’t have to manage, even though to the unknowing person I appear to be in pretty good shape.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when I still have recurring nightmares about the hallucinations I had when I was psychotically depressed more than two years ago. Some nights, I dread going to sleep. You don’t know mental illness when I sleep on my mother’s bedroom floor when I’m suicidal so I feel safe because I know I won’t hurt myself through the night.

You don’t know mental illness.

You don’t know mental illness when people lower their expectations of you purely for having a medical condition. You don’t know mental illness when it takes the things you love like travel, work, friends and partners. You don’t know mental illness when it takes away the one thing you felt sure about, the one thing you could rely on, the one thing you could trust, yourself.

You don’t know mental illness, and you’re lucky.

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 or text “START” to 741-741.

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