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The 5 Ways People Respond After Learning About My Mental Illness

When people find out that I have a mental illness, there are five common responses I get that I find to be especially difficult.

#1. A split-second of silence, averted eyes and a change of subject.

#2. “Everyone suffers from mental illness!”

“We all get depressed and anxious! Everyone is a little OCD! I was depressed once. I lay in bed for a week. And then I said to myself, ‘Enough!’ And I got myself back out of bed. I don’t think you’re mentally ill. You’re just overly sensitive! You need to learn to toughen up.”

This is probably the worst response of all because it evokes shame, guilt and doubt: three unwelcome guests who already spend way too much time in my head. I start to think, “Maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m just lazy. Maybe I’m just weak. I’m a burden on society and the ones I love. I hate myself!”

You can see what road a person might choose to go down if they take that response to heart. Those who live with mental illness are strong, not weak. I have come to know that I don’t have to earn my right to exist and that I definitely didn’t choose to live with a mental illness! I need to remember I have gifts to offer. Fortunately, I have people I can turn to who remind me when I forget.

#3. “Wow. I would never guess that you’re depressed. You seem so happy to me!”

I understand that response because that was how I responded to the doctors who diagnosed me 30 years ago: “But I don’t feel depressed! I’m a happy person.” Depression has lots of different symptoms and degrees of severity. People with all kinds of dispositions live with depression. Also, some people are good at hiding their feelings, either consciously or unconsciously. Nobody wants to be a downer. It is a basic animal instinct to hide your vulnerability if possible. The reason I seem like a happy person is because I take medication that treats depression and because of that, my natural happy disposition can shine through!

#4. A look of alarm.

“Don’t tell me you’re taking medication! Do you have any idea how corrupt the pharmaceutical companies are? They’re just drug pushers. And the doctors get a financial bonus for every prescription they write. The pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to get better, you know, because if you did, they’d go out of business. Plus, they haven’t done studies on the long-term effects. These drugs are toxic! Who knows what they’ll do to you in the long run!”

Every one of these assertions might be correct, but I’ll still take my medication. When I was first diagnosed and prescribed medication, I was appalled. I was against over-the-counter medications, recreational drugs, food coloring, preservatives and most definitely, prescription drugs. I made my own tofu from scratch! I grew sprouts and made my own yogurt. I was afraid of birth control pills, pain killers, cough syrup, alcohol, caffeine or anything else that altered the pure and natural state of my body. The thought of taking antidepressants was abhorrent to me. I wasn’t going to fall into that trap. I continued to struggle for six more hellish months. Finally, it got to the point where I began to seriously consider suicide.

For the sake of my precious children, I tried medication. Have you heard of the power of positive thinking? Well, I was filled with negative thinking. “They’ll kill me. I’ll lose my mind. I’ll become a zombie. I’ll become addicted. They won’t work. It’s a scam, a conspiracy…”

It was to my initial shock and dismay that my symptoms were quickly alleviated. It was terribly hard to admit that something “unnatural” restored my basic human nature and saved my life. I’ve been taking medication for the best part of 30 years now. I wish I didn’t need to take them, but humble pie is part of the meal deal and that’s a healthy part of everyone’s diet.

#5. “Have you tried…”

“Supplement XYZ, their therapist, rebirthing, past life regression, bowel cleansing, acupuncture, meditation, mindfulness, an amazing book or the juice of a rare berry which only grows in the Congo jungle that I can buy from them for $30.00 a bottle.”

Please don’t assume that I am not proactive and educated about my health just because I choose to take prescription medication. If you want to share your recommendation with me, don’t be surprised if my eyes glaze over and I smile vacantly. I’m tired of getting my hopes up and trying another thing that doesn’t fix my brain.

So, how would I like people to respond when I tell them that I have mental illness? 

“That’s tough!” or “I’m sorry to hear that.” Let me know that you care. If I tear up and wipe my eyes, please don’t feel bad, it’s fine! Feel free to give me a hug. If you’re truly interested, I like questions like: “How are you feeling these days?” Or, “What is your diagnosis?” Or, “How long have you been struggling with mental illness?” If I tell you I have mental illness, it means I feel safe to say it. It’s kind of a compliment! It’s never easy to share. It’s a bit scary to say. I often use those words “mental illness” to be brave and help break down the stigma.

And if you were to say, “I don’t know much about mental illness, but I’d like to. Can we go have coffee sometime?” I’d think that you were awesome.

Unsplash via Lewis Carroll

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