Just Because I Smile, Doesn't Mean I Am 'Well'
For the rest of my life, I will live with a serious mental illness, a diagnosis I am still trying to understand. For the rest of my life, I will struggle immensely with my mental health, with the demon in my head. I will have challenging moments, severe depressive episodes, moments of bleakness and emptiness, numerous days of living under blankets feeling hopeless and depressed or too anxious and paranoid to leave my home. I will have days when I am a detached version of myself, feeling lost and spaced out from the world around me, I will have difficult moments when I refuse to see anyone including those in my care circle, where just breathing is too much, too overwhelming. I will have moments of exhaustion, where the anxiety takes over my body and my mind. I will have moments of obsessional and intrusive thoughts when ignoring them isn’t an option, I will have days where I struggle immensely and just the thought of surviving is enough.
Although I may have days when I manage these symptoms better than other days, I may have moments when leaving my home is no longer a problem. I may have days when I do get dressed or manage to eat a sufficient meal other than just toast or cereal. I may have a 10 minute realization that I do have a healthy mind… (until I collapse and cry, trembling with fact that I will forever struggle). I may have moments when I am able to walk to a supermarket with little anxiety. I may have moments when talking to a stranger doesn’t fill me with suspicion. I may have moments when walking to an appointment or into a busy area doesn’t fill me with paranoia. I don’t know what the future holds for me — I don’t think too far in advance. I try to take each day as it goes or even take each minute as they tick along.
However what I do know is I can still smile, I can still laugh, I can still be a sister, a daughter, a granddaughter, a cousin and a niece. I can still be all those things. I can still be a creative person. I will always love cats. I will probably always drink endless cups of tea. I will always prefer even numbers to odd numbers. I will probably still talk to myself out loud in public places, make faces at myself, laugh at myself. I will probably always prefer the company of cats to humans. But I don’t know for sure. I don’t know if I will change. I don’t know if my mental health will change for the better or the worse.
But what I do know is I will struggle immensely with my mental health, each day, each hour, each minute will be different from the last. I may look different or seem different from time to time — that could be due to lots of things, from medication changing my body, to lack of sleep giving me heavy dark baggy eyes or even the good makeup hiding the tired eyes. Maybe sitting in the sunshine gave me rosy cheeks or I may be in a better mood because I befriended a cat or stroked a dog and that made me smile and relax a little. Or maybe I look pale because I’ve been hiding away in my home or may have messy hair because the depression has sprung taking away any motivation or care to look after my appearance. I may look different from time to time, because everyone looks different from time to time. Sometimes we don’t have the energy to look beautiful all the time or be all sunshine and lollipops 24/7.
But what I don’t like is when people say, “Oh, you look well,” “Oh, you sound really well,” “Sounds like you’re doing really well” or assume I am fine based on the fact that I smiled or laughed in their company. My mental illness doesn’t stop me from smiling or laughing — I can still do that.
By telling me “I sound well” or “look well,” you’re suggesting I must be well. I feel I need to give you a secret tale that shows I am doing just that — that I am doing well. I feel I have to make something up in order for that “Oh, you look well” phrase to justify me looking well. When you tell me “I look well,” I feel I have to lie and justify it with a valid reason — and to be honest, I don’t know how to answer that “compliment.”
Please don’t tell me I look well or that I’m doing well. Instead ask, “How are you?” and listen to my answer. Acknowledge the words coming from my mouth. Acknowledge how I am coming across or acknowledge the silence.
I am doing my best to “appear” well in the world and in front of people, in front of the professionals, the pharmacy staff, my family. I am trying my best to look well, but I tell you now I certainly am not well. I don’t even know what that feels like anymore.
Behind closed doors, I’m in my home, hiding under my blanket, trying my best to fight off the intrusive and dangerous thoughts, in tears, in complete isolation. I believe I will always struggle with this. I am always fighting. But just because I smiled or laughed doesn’t mean I am well. It just means I can still smile, that’s all.
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Thinkstock photo via taehoon bae.