We Shouldn't Feel Guilty for Needing Help With Our Mental Illnesses
I suffer from eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS), depression and anxiety, and a particularly rough patch recently culminated in both of my parents coming home from work in order to be with me. I messaged my boyfriend saying how awful I felt about this. He replied, “Be grateful to them but don’t be sorry.”
This is not my first time encountering this advice — there’s a lovely comic about it here — and yet nonetheless it somehow always feels incredibly radical. My illness exists at this intersection of circumstances where I consistently need other people at the same time as feeling horrible about myself, making for a delightful feelings-cocktail of inadequacy and guilt any time somebody helps me. Others offer us help because they care about us when we are suffering, and yet the notion that you don’t have to be sorry for needing people is alien.
I believe this is absolutely a product of the way that we talk about mental illness. It’s a bit obvious to point out that many people approach mental health poorly, and at least it’s equally true that many other people can recognize sentiments like “it’s narcissism” as the bullsh*t they are and call them out as such. Unfortunately, however, it takes more than this to undo the pervasive messages we receive about “acceptable” unwellness. For example, I have been contemplating suspending my university studies because I have been unable to work for the past month, which has awakened a very convincing internal voice telling me that “running away from problems doesn’t solve them!” It has taken an awful lot of unpicking to realize that, actually, that’s a really unhelpful piece of generic self-help advice that does not apply to illness. Taking a step back from things you cannot do is not running away from your problems, and most people who are sick face their problems every day out of sheer necessity.
Much of the more subtle wrongheadedness about mental health seems to stem from the way mental illnesses are treated. People talk about their problems all the time, some would argue, and so talking therapies reveal a tragic dysfunction and inability to do things for ourselves on the part of the ill person. And yet, when people have physical injuries, they may undergo physical therapy. When parts of your brain aren’t functioning like they would if they were well, sometimes you need help to find ways of navigating and compensating for that, meaning that therapy does a very specific job for people. The fact that recovery is something you do rather than something that is bestowed upon you doesn’t mean you should have somehow been able to avoid getting sick in the first place. The fact that there are things a person with mental illness might be able to identify as helpful — exercise, mindfulness, seeing friends — doesn’t mean those things can just fix them, and it especially doesn’t mean that when they can’t do those things, they aren’t trying. Again, it’s something I feel guilty about a lot of the time; sometimes illness means that, say, I can’t see a friend, and I feel terrible for not making the effort to help myself. But nobody chooses to stay in bed and feel appalling over seeing someone they love. That is the illness.
I also blame this sense that we are supposed to be able to recover by ourselves on the fact that, for a long time, I was incredibly resistant to the idea of taking medication. I felt like medicating was proof of my inability to take care of myself, when in fact it is precisely a method we have of caring for ourselves; so are all manner of things that take a little of the onus off us, because accepting the things that will heal us is an active process. Knowing the times when you need someone else to take some of the weight is a valid part of recovery, and an important part of allowing yourself to see what is happening to you as legitimate and real and not your fault. Allowing yourself that kind of legitimacy when you feel like you don’t deserve it is hard work, as is quieting (or at least arguing with) the guilt, but it is important for writing a different narrative about this stuff, one that is kinder to those of us who are ill. I am sick, and that affects those around me. It is not my fault any more than it’s theirs, and at the end of the day, the person it most adversely affects is me. That is OK.
We’re doing OK.
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