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To the People Who 'Just Don’t Get It' When It Comes to Mental Illness

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Recently, someone really pissed me off. Yup, I said it. It wasn’t anything specifically they said. It was all about their reaction. After I gave an honest answer about how I was feeling and said, “I’ve been better,” I got that “look.” The look of pity but not in a, “I’m sorry you don’t feel well,” way. It was more like a, “Spare me your sob story and suck it up,” look, accompanied by a faint eye roll and touch of dismissiveness.

I hate it when people react that way to me once they find out I have a mental illness. I’d even go so far as saying I resent it. Of course, I realize being resentful is not OK on my end, but I’m just being honest. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of people who are empathetic and caring even when they don’t get it. They still believe what I am saying.

It’s when I hear or read stories about people who truly believe it’s “all in our head” or that we should “try a little harder and stop feeling sorry for ourselves,” that really leaves a pit in my stomach. I’ve heard from many people who feel the same way due to reactions they’ve received once they’ve admitted to having a mental illness. I am writing this as a response to anyone who doesn’t take mental illness seriously or they simply don’t get it.

Dear _______________:

First, please understand that bipolar disorder and depression are real. They are medical conditions, which have been documented, studied and proven to exist. You need to understand when I am sick, I am not just sad or in a bad mood. At the other end of the spectrum, when I seem to possess the ability to get a million things done and have perfected the art of multitasking, this is usually a sign of impending disaster. Quite frankly, there is usually a runaway train in my brain that is speeding out of control and doomed to crash throwing me back into the pit.

Consider this: If I suddenly grabbed my chest and said I was having a heart attack or began vomiting because of the flu, then would you tell me to snap out of it? Would you expect me to try a little harder? Would you tell me to stop exaggerating? Would you expect me to pray my way out of the heart attack? Or would you be more apt to believe me because you are witnessing the physical symptoms taking over?

What if I called in sick because I literally couldn’t stand in front of a room full of kids for more than six hours because of a fever? Would you accuse me of being a wimp? You could touch my forehead and feel the fever, but when I’m manic or having a breakdown, you can’t see the chaos in my brain. It does not mean that because you can’t feel or see it, it is not there.

If my thought process failed and I had difficulty with comprehension or conversing as a result of a brain tumor would you judge me then? Or would you insist I do whatever necessary to take care of myself offering to help however you could?

There is no quick test for mental illness, but for all of us who struggle, it’s as real and as terrifying as a brain tumor or heart attack. Just because I’m smiling on the outside doesn’t mean my brain isn’t shutting down or I’m doing fine on the inside. I could be merely one step away from the edge.

A heart attack is a life-threatening condition, which is taken seriously. When I’m depressed or manic, please don’t write it off as “that’s just the way she is,” when it can be just as life-threatening. In the case of mental illness though, death is caused by suicide, which is often considered selfish. It is not looked upon through the same lens as death caused by other medical conditions. No one who has ever considered suicide has come to this point willingly or selfishly.

Just as all these medical conditions are real, so are illnesses that occur in the brain. Just as a heart attack can sneak up on you out of nowhere, so can the symptoms of mental illness. One moment, I may be fine. The next moment, I could find myself confined to bed or being admitted to the hospital. Just as it takes time to recover from a heart attack or to get insulin under control, it takes time to stabilize the chemicals in my brain.

Of course, there are steps I can take to prevent relapse and to help keep things under control. Everyone heals at their own pace and through different means no matter what the illness. However, simply “changing my thoughts” or “thinking positively” won’t miraculously cure me. I realize those approaches can help, but sometimes, it simply is not under my control no matter how positive I try to be.

My thought process is greatly compromised due to my illness. I cannot will my way out of it. Trust me, I’ve tried and felt extremely guilty when it has not worked. When you don’t take me seriously, it hurts.

Ask yourself this: Would you willingly make me feel guilty for having the flu? You may not even realize you are doing it, but please, don’t pass judgment on me for something I would never make up or exaggerate, something I cannot control. All I’m asking for is some compassion and willingness on your part to understand. Help me to fight this battle because it’s not easy to do so on my own. Let’s work together to break the cycle of judgment and resentment.

With love and grace,

A loved one living with mental illness

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Originally published: December 6, 2016
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