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23 Spot On Descriptions of What It's Like to Live With a Mental Illness

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Mental Health Month in May is over. Mental health awareness is not. To keep the awareness going, Mental Health America created the hashtag #mentalillnessfeelslike to collect descriptions of what it’s like to live with a mental illness. All month, people have been using the hashtag to share their experiencing with a mental illness — so we asked The Mighty’s mental health community to do that same.

Their answers — with the help from artist Gemma Correll — show how differently mental illness affects everyone, but also prove how much we can learn from each other’s experiences.

Here’s what #mentalillnessfeelslike to our community:

1. “Mental illness feels like you’re losing control of you. You don’t know who you truly are because this disease controls you and takes over your emotions. It lies to you and tells you that you are worthless. You wonder if the things you do are your personality or your disease. And on top of all of these oppressing feelings, society stigmatizes us as violent individuals because of the publicized actions of one or two people with mental illnesses. Very few of us are actually like that yet that is how we are treated if we are ever to reveal our mental illness.” — Kristin George

2.Mental health is the struggle to nurse your deepest wounds in secret because you don’t want to give the world another chance to discriminate against you… Mental illness feels like you’re trapped in a reality that’s not your own. Mental illness is the contamination of all that was pure to you. Mental illness is the struggle to adapt to the changed person that you become and having no way to know which one is you… Mental illness is waking up every day from the same nightmares, waking up to another nightmare. Mental illness is the fervent wish to escape this world but feeling too fatigued to kill yourself. Mental illness is in the sudden realization that the years have passed and you’re still alive and miracles really do happen.” —  Meghadeepa Maity

3. “Mental illness feels like a crushing stone on my chest making it hard to breathe. It makes me feel trapped, not being able to stop the flood of past memories or the continually cycle over in my head of conversations I’ve recently had. It makes me hopeless, alone, scared of myself, scared of everyone else, helpless, embarrassed [and] ashamed. That’s where I have a therapist who helps me in those dark times and reminds me…it’s gonna take one day at a time, and sometimes one moment at a time to walk through this and learn to manage” — Sarah Nowell

Image shows a man looking into three different fun mirrors. Text reads: Mental illness feels like: I'm in a hall of mirrors and I can't tell which one is the real thing.
source: Mental Health America artist: Gemma Correll

4. “Mental illness is faking a smile so others around you don’t know. It’s forcing yourself to get out of bed in the morning because if you don’t your anxiety will kick in. It’s hating to be alone but not having the energy to hangout with others. It’s having plain exhaustion but being unable to sleep. It’s a constant battle with yourself, every day, to just keep pushing forward and hoping for something better.” — Katie Nedz

5. “Mental illness feels like your worst enemy resides in your head, constantly telling you lies about yourself, until one day you believe them.” — Jennifer Davis

6.#mentalillnessfeelslike a bad dream, and how you feel without sleeping for days. It feels like you’re trying to scream for help but your voice isn’t coming out. It feels like your trying to dial 9-1-1 but your fingers can’t push the right damn buttons! Mental illness feels like a little kid who sits by himself while every other little boy and girl is smiling and playing around you. Mental illness feels like… no one wants to feel what mental illness feels like.” — Trena P Graves

image shows a girl wearing a paper bag on her head with a drawn smile. Text reads: I have to wear a mask every day.
source: Mental Health America artist: Gemma Correll

7. “Mental illness feels like I’m not living, but just existing. It keeps me from leading a fulfilling life because I’m always overwhelmed with crippling emotions. My depression leaves me feeling like I’m a burden, lost, worthless and even suicidal at times. My anxiety leaves me feeling isolated, worried about unnecessary worries, and like I can’t get ahead in life. My mental illness has led me into an alcohol addiction, which I am now in outpatient treatment for. Mental illness is different for everyone, but we are all fighting the same fight.” — Emily Covich

8. “It is so hard to be calm on the outside when you have so much going on inside when you live with mental illness #mentalillnessfeelslike.” — Marlena Davis

A woman standing with many images of herself on a porch.
photo via Marlena Davis

9. “Mental illness feels like isolation. Even if you have plenty of friends and loved ones, your mind tries to deceive you that you are unwanted, unloved and unnecessary. It feels like a thousand thoughts of self doubt and self pity hitting you all at once, all the while trying to paste on a smile and act like you’re fine and happy and normal. Because if you aren’t fine and happy and normal, people treat you differently. They see you differently. It is isolating.” — Maddie Grimes

10. “Mental illness feels like trying to breathe under water. It’s like you’re constantly drowning and nobody can ever save you.” — Kristen Plummer

Images shows someone screaming "help" from the bottom of a well while a cat licks its paws. Text reads: I'm trapped down a well, yelling for help, but nobody can hear me.
source: Mental Health America artist: Gemma Correll

11. “Mental illness feels like an unstoppable hamster wheel in your mind. It is a paradox of feeling the need to do everything, yet having no energy, desire or confidence to do so.” –Tamara Lavoie

12. “#mentalillnessfeelslike doubting everything around you, even yourself. Unable to trust your doctor, your friends, your family, etc. You can only listen to the intrusive voices in your head tells you that you’re sick, you’re dying, you don’t deserve happiness. Constant battle with my mind every day.” — Andre D’Costa

13. “Mental illness to me is like being stuck in a cage of isolation, fear, and self doubt. Only, the cage door appears open to everyone else.” — Ley Grady

14. “Mental illness feels like paddling upstream. Making a little headway is exhausting and it is so tempting to stop paddling and just flow with the current.” — Janice Schmader

Images shows a milk carton with the text: Missing, my motivation to do stuff.
source: Mental Health America artist: Gemma Correll

15.Recovery from mental illness feels like trying to put together a puzzle, but all the pieces are from completely different puzzles. Nothing fits, nothing works right and it seems that the best it’ll ever get is ‘barely put-together,’ but still a jumbled mess.” — Tara Strickland

16.#mentalillnessfeelslike being the only person who you know experiencing your chaos. Because we don’t talk about it, we all assume everyone is OK. It’s like judging a book by its cover. No one really knows unless you open up to them about it. Even when you do open up most people who do not experience mental illness can’t comprehend what you are struggling with. It’s something that takes work to manage, every single day.” — Vanessa Hauser

17. “Mental illness feels like a thick fog. Always gray. You can hear those around you, but can’t see them or care to see them. No matter where you go, you’re still surrounded by fog. It’s so thick you can feel its weight pushing you down. It never let’s you feel happy. It never let’s you sleep. It can even make you think you see or hear things that aren’t there. It relentless and never ending.” — Pauline Price

Image shows an elephant sitting on a person. Caption reads: "Mental illness feels like an elephant sitting on your chest.
source: Mental Health America artist: Gemma Correll

18. “Mental illness feels like you’re fighting an invisible war constantly. Thing is, you’re in this war and you can’t tell where the next attack is going to come from, or even when.” — Isabel Erroa

19. “Mental Illness is wanting to cover your eyes, close them tight or look away from your life… but at the same time wanting to see as you try to cope, afraid if you don’t you’ll become invisible. ” — Maria Agro

Maria Agro with her hands over her eyes.
photo via Maria Agro

20.#mentalillnessfeelslike my brain has a life of its own. It twists and turns in my skull; I have no control, but I hang on to just enough of the outside world to pretend I’m OK.” — Kim Kempkes

21. “Have you ever been caught in a riptide? You’re supposed to go with the current, tread water. Try not to panic or you’ll lose the only fresh air. People yelling for you but you can’t respond, and their voices are far away. Feels like that. If that makes any sense.” — Elizabeth Anne

22.#mentalillnessfeelslike drowning above water. You can see the air. You can feel it brush across your skin. But you can’t use it. It’s purpose in life has been thwarted by your everlasting pain. The suffocation. So close to the air touching your lungs. You know it’s powers. You know you need it. You want it. You can’t take it in. Because you’re drowning. You’re drowning above water. No one can save you. They can’t see you’re drowning. There’s no water surrounding you to stop the air from getting to your lungs. All they see is the access to the air you need. You have what you need. You shall need nothing more. However they don’t know that you’re drowning. Above water. Slowly. Drowning. It gets harder with each desperate gasp. It’s not enough. Just one breath. Please. Leave me to breathe. I don’t want to drown where no one can see. They don’t know to help. They don’t understand. How can you drown above water? It’s just like drowning underwater only there’s no barrier surrounding you like the darkness of water. What’s surrounding you is your own darkness. Your own darkness. Sadness. Worthlessness. Is what’s drowning you. It’s drowning you. Above water.” — Trish Ashley

23.#mentalillnessfeelslike is feeling nothing at all and not knowing how to explain it. It’s having a constant battle with your mind every single day and giving it every thing you have to overcome it and make it to tomorrow.” — Annie Simms

Danielle Hark
photo via Danielle Hark

*Some answers have been edited for clarity.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

Originally published: June 1, 2016
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