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The 'Catch-22' of Struggling With a Mental Illness

I’ve often thought the “catch 22” of mental illness is that many of us struggle to feel understood particularly when our personal experience seems to drift from those of the world around us. With the continued lack of accurate information or representation of mental health problems — although this is gradually improving — it can be extremely difficult to see expressions of our own lives in society. On the other hand, as some say, “all we need is a little more understanding.” Although feeling understood is no cure-all to our problems, I do believe humanity thrives when they feel understood and there’s the problem. No one can understand us if they haven’t walked in our shoes and those people can be hard to come by in a world still plagued by stigma.

Even if we do find someone with the same diagnosis or a similar life experience to us, it’s still no guarantee. A majority of mental health education about diagnosed conditions suggest that everyone will have the same symptoms or a range in a selection — like mental health symptoms are a menu in a chocolate box for truffles and chocolate cremes. That, of course, is not the case. Many have unusual symptoms or a completely different set of symptoms from someone with the same diagnosis. A shared or similar experience can send different people down very different paths. And yet having someone to understand, someone who has ‘been there’ (even when our experiences are not identical) can be incredibly helpful.

The first time I had an open conversation with someone who also had depression was also the first time I heard someone explain how it felt. They described a feeling I knew that I struggled to put it into words. They knew firsthand that I wasn’t just “sad” or “having a bad day.” They didn’t tell me the feeling would pass, that it was a part of being a teenager or that I just needed to take my mind of it. She told me that someone once described depression as like trying to think through treacle. To me as a 16-year-old girl searching for someone to understand, this was the perfect description. I felt like I was wading through life and being pulled back by the undertow. Every step forward was followed by two steps back. Having once been a creative type that spent a lot of time deep in thought, I struggled to keep my thought processes on track. I was living almost exclusively in my own head, in a dream world of my own creation unable to access the world around me. I was living on the other side of frosted glass, aware that a whole world was continuing without me but unable to see clearly what was happening or to summon the energy to care. My own world was good enough for me.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but when my depression finally started to recede I was like an ostrich removing its head from the sand after a prolonged period. I was surprised by the life I discovered on the other side of my depression. Life had gone on, I knew it would, but it wasn’t the world I had known before. Depression had colored every aspect of my life from my school grades to my relationships with friends and families. I was completely disorientated and struggled to understand where I was. Where my peers had continued on the straight and narrow, I had gone a long and circuitous route and no one seemed to understand my journey. I was expected to get back on track and continue like nothing had happened. Not easy when you feel like a large chunk of the past few months is missing. I didn’t know where I was but I also had no idea where I had been.

So there it is, the catch-22 of mental illness — in my opinion, the vicious cycle of the mental health world. How do you find someone to understand when no one ever really can?

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Unsplash photo via Patrick Fore