Why I Shouldn't Have to Minimize My Struggle With Mental Illness


We’ve probably all been there. We are having a rough day, feeling under the weather. Our mental illness is wreaking havoc, making it difficult to even function. Yet when someone asks if we’re OK, we force ourselves to smile and reassure them that we’re fine.

Our eyes are puffy from crying and our world feels like it is collapsing beneath our feet. Yet, instead of being honest about how we are feeling, we force ourselves to smile and we make a half-hearted joke about allergies and it being that time of year.

We might have laid in bed for hours the night before, unable to sleep because our anxiety had our mind racing for over half the night. When we finally managed to pass out from exhaustion, our sleep was spotty, restless and riddled with anxiety-laden nightmares. Yet when someone points out that we look tired, we force ourselves to smile and remark about how there’s never enough hours in the day to sleep as much as we would like.

Our stomachs may rumble reflexively because we haven’t eaten in a day and a half because we have no appetite or desire to eat. When someone notices the sound, we force ourselves to smile and make an offhanded comment about it being a busy day, too busy to find time to eat. Yet we reassure them we’ll eat plenty to make up for it later, even if we have no intention of following through.

We’ve probably spent three days mostly curled up in bed, barely able to function. When someone checks in to see whether we’re OK, we run our fingers through our disheveled hair, force a smile and mutter something about just getting over a cold or the flu because somewhere in our mind we rationalize that a fake physical ailment sounds more believable and justifiable than a real mental one.

Someone remarks on the fact that we were wearing the same outfit when they saw us last a few days ago. We force a smile and reply that it’s our favorite or most comfortable one and joke about it being laundry day.

We often force smiles and ask people who stop by for a visit to please excuse the clutter and the mess as if we have just been too busy to clean instead of being honest that we just haven’t had the physical or mental energy to do much of anything around the house in days.

We know when things are bad. We can usually see when our functionality begins to slip. Yet, instead of being honest with those around us, more often than not we minimize our struggles or even outright lie about their existence.

We might isolate and make excuses about being busy with life. We avoid friends and family so they don’t see how bad things truly are. Again and again, we make excuses and downplay the severity of our condition as if we’re doing other people, or ourselves, an enormous favor by shielding them from the truth.

Many times every day, in virtually every interaction we have with others, we minimize our illness and the effect it has on our life supposedly for the comfort of others. We have so many excuses for doing this. Maybe we don’t want to put our drama on anyone else. Maybe we don’t want others to worry. Maybe we don’t want to be a burden. Maybe we don’t want to be accused of being an attention-seeker or throwing a “pity party.” Maybe we don’t have the words to adequately explain what is going on inside us or just plain don’t want to talk about it. Maybe we’re embarrassed of our diagnosis and don’t want to be judged or treated like a joke. Whatever our reasoning, we usually press our lips into a pained smile, pretending things aren’t all that bad and we lie.

We press our lips together in fake, forced smiles. We say we’re OK even when we know without a doubt that we’re not. We claim that we’re hanging in there, doing our best to stay positive and keep going, acting as if there’s nothing to worry about even as our world feels like it is crumbling around us.

What good does lying or minimizing our struggles really do?

Time and time again, we wish others understood exactly what we are going through. In rare moments of unfettered honesty, we sometimes tell others they could not possibly understand how bad it is unless they experienced it for themselves.

But how is anyone supposed to ever understand or empathize if we keep hiding the harsh reality of the situation from them? We cannot simultaneously spare them the agony of the truth and accuse them of just not understanding how bad things really are. If we want others to understand how bad things truly are, I think we have to be completely honest about it. Not partial truths, not sugary sweet versions of the truth but the whole unadulterated, ugly truth.

Because in reality, their comfort is not our responsibility. Our responsibility is our own well-being. I think we are doing ourselves no favors by hiding how we are doing from those who care about us. Likewise, we are doing them an injustice by hiding the truth from them. If someone is checking in about our well-being, they obviously care. If they care and are trying to be there, they deserve the truth. Not some watered down version of it but the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Will our honesty make others uncomfortable? Most likely. But let’s be honest here. Mental illness is usually not pretty. It is often dark and scary. It can torment us to our very soul. Being honest about the effects of our diagnosis is not always going to be pretty. But it is real. And reality can sometimes be very disconcerting. It can be a hard pill to swallow. But the truth is the truth and, as the saying goes, the truth can set you free.

Time and again, we complain about the stigma surrounding mental illness and how so many people do not take our diagnosis seriously. Perhaps we hold part of the blame ourselves. If we want others to truly understand what it is like living with mental illness, I think we need to start being completely honest about it.

I know it can be scary putting everything out there. There’s a great deal of vulnerability in sharing the whole, unfettered truth of the situation with others. But unless you’re completely honest about how you truly are, I don’t think you can ever expect anyone else to understand exactly what you are going through.

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