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When Mental Illness Becomes a Competition

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OK, so there’s something I’ve been thinking about for months. I have been hesitant to write about it because I don’t want people to think I don’t want to support them. I do. The thought of helping another person smile or get through a tough moment quite literally gets me out of bed in the morning on days when it feels like the last thing I should be doing.

If you have had a conversation with me recently, then you probably know I adamantly tell people they are not a burden. No matter what they are going through, they are deserving of love and care. However, I’ve noticed mental illness (and mental health in general) has developed an underlying tone of competition.

That being said, I think it’s honesty time. I am guilty of this. I am guilty of measuring my problems based on other people’s. Last night, I woke up around 3:00 a.m. with a panic attack. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, but I was afraid to wake up my friends who were literally in the same room because I felt like my problem wasn’t “bad enough” to warrant their support.

Trying to lie completely still so as not to wake them, I starting thinking through all of my options in my head. Should I go outside? Should I take a shower? Should I go pet one of the kittens? Needless to say, I was confused and overwhelmed.

Over the past few months, here’s the thing I’ve learned about mental illness: you will never feel like you are “sick enough.” I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever truly believe I have anxiety, even though I have a professional diagnosis. If you can’t see it, then society leads us to believe it’s not there. Since, I don’t have a cast for my brain, no one can see I’m healing, not even me.

More than that, it can be really invalidating for someone who is experiencing a crisis when other people neither see nor understand what is happening. Someone may have just had the worst panic attack of their life or literally feel nothing because of depression. They may have only eaten a handful of crackers all day, and someone saying, “Yeah, I was super stressed for that test too,” “I was so depressed when I hurt my ankle and couldn’t go to the gym,” or “Good for you for going on a diet,” can invalidate everything this person is going through. In that moment, it might cause an individual to deny their own illness.

At my worst, I denied mine. I thought because my anxiety was different from my friend’s, mine must not be “real” anxiety. I’m not saying walk on eggshells around your friends. That’s the last thing I would want someone to do with me. What I am saying is take what people tell you as true.

If someone says they’ve had the worst day, then ask them how you can help. Empathize with them. Sometimes, you can’t help and that’s OK. Just be there. If they say they are OK or they just want to be alone, then let them do what they need to do. They’ve got this.

I know I’ve said before that what has helped me the most in my mental health journey is talking to other people who have experienced similar struggles. I still believe that. Yet, the difference is if someone also has generalized anxiety disorder (GAD,) I know they truly “get it,” and more often than not, they will know I don’t want to hear, “Yeah, I had a really bad panic attack earlier too.” It sometimes feels invalidating to imagine what people who haven’t had the same struggles I have think when they hear, “I had a panic attack.”

Basically, what I want to say is if you’re comparing your struggles to someone else’s is stop. If you are going through a rough time, then you deserve support. I promise you your struggles are valid. You do not need to have the same experience as someone else in order for it to mean you deserve help, nor will it help you to think, “Oh, many others have it worse than I do.”

Take care of yourself first. My rule of thumb is if I think I have a personal anecdote that can help someone feel less alone, then I will ask them if they want to hear about my experience to see if it can help them think through theirs. This way it’s their call.

At the end of the day, if you make mental health a competition, then I promise this is a competition you do not want to win. If you “win,” you aren’t living. Be kind and support one another. Remember your vulnerabilities can be your greatest asset.

This post originally appeared on Self-Love Diaries.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: January 13, 2017
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