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When You Feel Like You're Not 'Sick Enough' to Treat Your Mental Illness

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“I just don’t think you have enough AIDS to get treatment.” “I think we’ll wait to begin your chemo until you have more cancer.” “Your Ebola isn’t advanced enough for us to do anything about it. Go home, rest up and when it gets worse give us a call.”

They all sound ridiculous, don’t they? If you’d never tell someone their illness is only a little symptomatic, why make those with mentally illnesses feel as though they aren’t sick enough for treatment?

The idea that we must be more ill to seek help pervades the minds of so many of us with mental illnesses. I battled it myself for years before finally capitulating. People I respect have quietly admitted feeling guilty for taking their pills or seeing a therapist. The idea of not being sick enough to warrant treatment runs concurrent to feeling as though we should be able to handle it ourselves.

Despite knowing on a cognitive level what mental illness is, the illness itself often poisons our mind and keeps us from seeking the help we need. People with diagnosed mental illnesses live significantly shorter lives than those without. Knowing that, we should be making it easier for people to seek treatment, not significantly more difficult.

I don’t mean to imply that medical professionals slide us onto the back burner, though I’m sure it happens. Minimizing our own mental maladies is a self-inflicted wound, a brutal act we’ve practiced to perfection. Because we’ve been conditioned to treat what we can see, our mental illnesses become low priority, below even the mundane like yearly dental exams or physicals.

We can’t see it so it doesn’t exist. There isn’t a definitive, easy test for mental illness. I can’t go to the doctor and ask her to give me a test for my depression as if I had virus or infection. We can’t do a body scan and identify the mass that is responsible for a person’s anxiety. Because these illnesses can’t be identified in the traditional sense, we often feel as though we’re making them up, that they are phantoms.

The thought process behind that is as damaging as the disease itself. It feeds into the false narrative that a person is losing control of their life. “What’s wrong with me that I can’t be happy with what I have. I’m always sad. I can’t do this anymore.” The chances of a positive outcome shrink the longer we let our disease go unchecked.

Many of us grew up with our only exposure to mental illness via the television, seeing only the mumbling, cowering homeless man, shrieking vagabond or crazed killer. We didn’t see the mom suffering silently through postpartum depression. We didn’t understand how a popular teacher could choose to end his life. We missed the signs because we didn’t know them.

Many of us learned about it by having it, and that left us completely unprepared for dealing with the fallout. Nobody told us our minds could betray us. They didn’t tell us help was available and they didn’t let us know there shouldn’t be shame in asking for it. We were left to sink or swim, and far too many of us disappeared beneath the waves never to be seen again.

Yes. I still harbor feelings of guilt when I seek treatment, as if I’m stealing it from someone who needs it more. I hesitate to reach out to friends because I believe their lives are made that much more difficult by my presence and I think twice before telling my family I need some “me” time. I still feel shame for asking for help because I have assigned my own stigma.

Having a mental illness is like having a liar living in your head. He sounds like you. He uses your words, tones and inflections. He is persistent and patient, waiting for the right moment to strike and seeking out cracks or soft spots in your cognitive blockades. He will tell you not only that you are unworthy of help, but unworthy of life itself.

That’s where the problem begins really. Our heads tell us we aren’t worth helping. And then society tells us to “toughen up” if we’re just a little depressed, or not anxious enough. And yes, we grade many illnesses based upon their severity, and it’s OK to do so with mental illness.

However, we shouldn’t feel guilty for seeking people just because we are “less sick” than others. We shouldn’t have to wait until we’re so far gone, we’re almost lost. We need more support in the beginning, when these issues first arise, and when these systems are in place — we can’t be afraid to use them. 

The affliction alone makes us worthy of seeking help. It has nothing to do with how far down into the darkness we have fallen. Having fallen helplessly into the abyss, no matter how deeply, means help is both necessary and warranted.

Follow this journey at Shawn Henfling.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your disability, disease, or mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold this misconception? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 7, 2016
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