What if you woke up tomorrow and didn’t recognize yourself in the mirror? What if someone told you that some of your reality isn’t true, only you have to figure out which parts are real and which aren’t? What if you lived each day sometimes feeling like yourself, but other times this unexpected, paralyzing wave washed over you, unpredictably and inexplicably? What if you felt you could no longer trust your voice, your thoughts, or your feelings? What if your every decision hinged on taking into account this demon, from your sleep schedule to your job to having a baby to where you go to just how much you can mange? What if you lost yourself and didn’t know how to figure it out, when it would end, who could help you, or who might understand?
About two months ago, I asked my Facebook friends to comment on what mental illness feels like for them. My Facebook friends are not clients of mine and never have been. They are my family, they are colleagues, and they are friends I’ve known all my life. In short, they are the people that I love. And they have been touched by mental health, and they are willing to speak out. You won’t know their names, but this is what they have to say. The bold-faced quotes are the voices of my contributors.
On stigma and feeling alone:
“Mental health is hiding who I really am. People don’t understand. People don’t care to understand.”
” It means I have to be stronger than I feel, so many days of my life.”
“It feels like even after all this time, I don’t always know myself and that feels so scary.”
“I can say for myself – the stigma attached to mental health is heartbreaking because it’s not ‘visible.'”
On loving someone with a mental illness:
“I hate feeling like I can’t always help them and I feel guilty for feeling so frustrated.”
“When you realize someone close to you is suffering from a mental illness you experience both relief for finding a reason for their actions and sadness all at the same time. You know it is possible for them to feel better at some point with treatment, but you wish you had known how to help them sooner. You also know it is going to be a long road of ups and downs that require patience.”
On facing obstacles:
“… a reminder that something in my past, something so profound, has shook me to the core of who I am and has altered the person I am and worse, the person I could have become.”
And on recovery:
“I’ve learned that I’m no longer going to hide my issues because so many people have a mental health issue in some way or another.”
“I’ve been more honest with people about my condition because just because I may have these “issues”, it doesn’t mean that I’m contagious, can’t function, can’t love or do anything that people consider ‘normal’.”
“It has taken some time, and sometimes the scale still tips a bit far to one side, but I have learned how to better balance wellness and productivity.”
“My mental health issues will never go away. I will never be healed. There is no cure. But there is always my choice to live life the way I want to and I sure as hell am going to choose to live a good one.”
Mental illness is invisible, misunderstood, stigmatized, and terrifying. Most importantly, it’s no one’s fault. I want everyone to understand not only what research and textbooks tell us, but what it feels like to experience and witness. I want all of us to fight it and win. I want to win with effective treatments, proper and accessible medical care, and most importantly, with ending stigma.
People can’t choose their brain chemistry any more than they can pick their eye color. With proper treatment, we know brain chemistry can change. Be a voice of encouragement, be understanding and educated, and be a friend.
You can be smarter than the stigma.