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When Loved Ones Don't Understand Your Mental Illness

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As someone who has struggled with mental illness for years, I have learned that unless you have personally experienced mental illness, you can’t quite understand the deep internal pain that it causes. One can understand intellectually what those who live with conditions such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), depression and anxiety experience; that is, they may be adept at recognizing symptoms and understanding how they fit together to form the illness. However, it is extremely unlikely that they know and can relate to the intense emotional pain of dealing with a mental health disorder.

It is my experience that, although I have dealt with mental illness for seven years, the loved ones who live with me still struggle to understand how I feel and why I feel that way. And I don’t blame them entirely — I can’t blame them. I can’t make them feel what happens when my brain turns against me and my inner demons torment me, and I would never wish mental illness upon my worst enemy. However, there is only so much researching, studying and sometimes even listening that one can do to try to understand the struggle of mental illness. It is like trying to understand what it feels like to live in someone else’s body — while you know what it feels like to live in your body, and you can rely on your own experience, you will never know exactly how it feels to live in your best friend’s body, or anyone else’s body. It is a unique experience, and that is just a natural aspect of life.

It is difficult when my loved ones struggle to understand why I ask the same questions repetitively, and why I plead for reassurance every single day. They don’t understand this is not something that I can just shut off, or an annoying habit I have picked up. It is the result of tossing and turning every night, petrified of what the next day of school or work holds. It is the result of someone canceling plans or talking in a slightly different tone, and then taking it personally and thinking they hate you.

Another thing my loved ones struggle to understand is my irritability and mood instability, a result of living with borderline personality disorder. I so badly want them to understand that I am working as hard as I can in therapy and in my every day life to try to control it. I want them to understand this is not something that can be magically resolved overnight by a pill. This is not something I can just will away or ignore. I am not ungrateful, and I know there are so many blessings in my life. But this does not diminish my pain. I still have a legitimate, diagnosed medical condition, but it is invisible.

I am still learning that I’m allowed to feel pain, even if it is internal and others cannot see it. I still feel pain and have symptoms even though I am in therapy and taking medication. Sometimes I feel like they would understand better and have a bit more empathy if I had a condition that affected my physical body. It is hard to describe over and over again the deep, ever-present pain that mental illness can cause. It is even harder to explain when you are the only one who has a mental illness in your immediate family. I wish I could make those in my life understand that the burden and hurt I unwillingly place on them hurts me just as bad; it is a deep ache when you hurt those you love the most, and you try your hardest to control it and not cause them any pain.

My loved ones struggle to understand why I talk about my mental illnesses or let my problems bother me so much, and why I can’t just focus on the positives in life. Sometimes, when you are deep in the trenches of depression, it is hard to see any light or blessings in your life. My old therapist once told me that a common symptom of depression is this feeling of emotional permanence; it is hard to remember that you ever felt differently before depression. It is hard to remember what being happy or even OK feels like. I know that it must be so difficult for my family to see their daughter/sister in pain. I readily accept that I cannot understand what it’s like to have a loved one or a child struggle with mental illness and trying your best to support them. It is not easy to understand what struggling with mental illness feels like if you love someone with mental illness, and it is not easy to understand what it is like to be the caregiver of someone with mental illness.

With a bit more empathy and patience, I truly believe that families, friends and partners of those with mental illness can help their loved one overcome it. Similarly, although it is difficult, I am increasingly trying my best to understand my family members’ perspectives and the unique experiences of caring for someone with mental illness. Empathy, patience and love bring about hope. And where there is hope, healing begins.

Photo by Katya Austin on Unsplash

Originally published: September 5, 2021
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