We all do it. Judge others, that is. Even when we say we don’t. No matter how hard we try not to. So I suppose it comes as no surprise, that the effort to end the stigma surrounding mental health issues hits a snag when faced with the down and dirty reality of it.
Everyone wants to be understanding and supportive. They want to be the friend that is enlightened, that understands mental illness is no different than physical illness. And yet….people can’t seem to help but treat it as a moral issue or a character defect. If I say I’m suffering from depression/anxiety/bipolar, people want to sympathise and they often try to relate. At first. That sympathy rarely lasts long once they start having to deal with the reality.* The mood swings that keep me from doing things, make me snap at people for no reason, leave me crying in the shower, or the anxiety that prevents me from staying at functions, makes it impossible for me to focus, leaves my nails bitten down to the quick. The weeks when I can’t wash my dishes or wash my hair. The year and a half I didn’t open a single piece of mail. The days when I race to leave work so no one will see me when I finally can’t hold it back any longer and I start to cry. Not just a few tears, but those wracking sobs that take away my breath and make me cough and gag. The endless requests for reassurance because I just cannot even begin to fathom how someone could love me, or like me, or want to be around me.
That shit gets old. Hell, it gets old for me too, but I don’t have the option to just walk away. Believe me, if I could take a break from being inside my head, I would in a heartbeat! So, while it hurts when people don’t want to deal with me, I also understand. It’s awful. It makes everyone miserable. People feel helpless, taken advantage of, personally attacked, and it’s just no fucking fun. And unlike with a so-called “physical” ailment, there’s really nothing they can do except exist and be there. All their instincts about helping and fixing are more often than not actually detrimental to those of us suffering. Plus, there’s no clear way to distinguish real from fake. Or to distinguish between the person trying to fix themselves, and the person revelling in it and using it as a crutch. Hardest of all? People who don’t experience it themselves just cannot understand how real and uncontrollable it is for us. What do you mean you can’t buck up and feel better? Have you tried mediation? Or yoga? Running helps this person, you should try that! Did you see how Bob got his life together? Why not try what he did?
Then, we can add in the confusion of the unpredictability of it. One minute I’m a mess, but the next I’m laughing and smiling. Or I make jokes even in the midst of the despair. To many, that means I’m better. No matter how many times the pros tell us about the unpredictability of the symptoms of our mental illness, people just can’t SEE it. And this pill works for some, why doesn’t it work for you? What do you mean you used that pill for six years and now it isn’t working? What do you mean you ‘forgot’ to take your medication? How does someone FORGET that sort of thing? People want some sort of physical manifestation, measurable progress, statistics, data, PROOF. They want to be able to relate and understand. Cancer patients don’t forget their life-saving meds, why would I? That just doesn’t make SENSE to people. In fact, mental illness as a whole just DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. So, unless I’m mid physical manifestation (and preferably a BIG manifestation….not just moody, but bawling, threatening suicide,** having a full on panic attack), most people don’t take it seriously.
How do you end the stigma on something like that?
*There are those too who try too hard. Constantly asking if I’m ok, trying to ‘help’ when all I need is to be left alone. But I’m not going to call that the same thing. Because I’d rather have people try to hard I suppose, than not care. Tho feeling like I have to make someone else feel better since they can’t make me feel better isn’t exactly helpful.
**The ridiculous stigma of suicide and the societal barriers to discussing it is a conversation for another day.