The following article contains talk of abuse and suicide that may be triggering for some people. Please proceed at your own risk.
It’s no secret that I’ve been battling PTSD and a complex mood disorder for most of my life. Well, that’s not entirely true. For a long time I did keep it hidden, because every time I would mention it to someone I’d either get a horrified look and rapid subject change or a response that they absolutely, positively believed was not blindingly offensive. As the years went on, however, I realized that keeping my mental illness a secret was partly responsible for the abhorrent behavior of others. It didn’t merely justify to them that yes, this was some horrible, terrible, no-good very bad thing to be ashamed of (spoilers: it isn’t); it ensured that they’d go through their lives operating off of false information that would otherwise never be corrected, unknowingly hurting who-knows-how-many other people in the process and making themselves look like awful people.
Although over a quarter of adults in the United States are diagnosed with some form of mental illness each year, there are still plenty of those out there who have never experienced it for themselves or been anywhere near another person who has. Even if they had, there’s a decent chance they’d never know due to the stigmatization of mental illness as some kind of deep personal flaw rather than what it actually is — a sickness that the afflicted has no more choice or control over than if they had been diagnosed with cancer. The answer’s right there in the second word, for God’s sake, illness. It’s not just there to fill space. Most of the mentally ill people I know are nowhere near as “out” as I am because they fear (sadly, rightfully so) retribution from family, friends, or even employers. Studies show that they are up to 7 times more likely to be the victims of violence compared to the rest of the population, and those numbers are likely even higher in reality due to how horribly underreported these crimes are, mostly because of the shaming, patronization, and doubt that mentally ill victims know they will face at the police station or on the witness stand.
I have many horror stories that I could tell in order to paint the same, bleak picture. Once upon a time, I was just a kid with a mood disorder, a chemical imbalance in my brain with a genetic component that really wasn’t anyone’s fault, just luck of the draw. As time went on, people figured out ways to use it against me or as an alibi for themselves — “she’s delusional” or “you can’t trust her perception of things,” despite the fact that mood disorders don’t cause delusions or altered views of reality. They got away with it because most people automatically assume that mentally ill = “crazy” = all “crazy” is like what you see in the movies with straitjackets, padded cells, and voices.
I was ostracized throughout most of my time in school because I cried too much some days and others I’d talk rapidly and start fights and be completely uncontrollable. The other kids called me “freak” and beat me up or told me to kill myself. In fourth grade, I’d had enough and held a pair of scissors to my throat, tearfully pleading with the teacher to make them stop. The teacher laughed in my face and told me to go ahead, do it. When I finally spoke up about the sexual abuse I’d endured as a teenager, people I thought I could trust were sympathetic to my face, but immediately turned around and notified everyone else I’d told not to listen to me, that sometimes I got “confused” and “made things up.” I got into a relationship with a man who would beat me, force himself on me, and then belittle and berate me to the point of more suicide attempts. Again, I tried to speak up, to call attention to my plight, and I got a little further this time; people actually began to question him about what was going on behind closed doors. His response was a sweet smile and hushed tone while he told them I was mentally ill, and he was so sorry for any trouble, that he tried to keep tabs on me and my “behavior” but sometimes I would be so convincing in my supposed delusions that I’d trick other people too, and I didn’t mean anything by it, really, he’d see about calling my doctor and upping my dosage but in the meantime please don’t let me trouble them. It was a Hell of an act that lasted all the way until he closed the front door and threw me into a wall for snitching. The night he tried to kill me by strangling me with an electrical cord, I managed to get away from him and run through the hallways of our apartment with him in pursuit screaming for help, for someone to call 911, but the news had spread like wildfire. I was just having one of my “delusions.” There was no need for them to do anything but lock their front doors and sit in silence, pitying the pretty girl who was so obviously sick in the head as to try and cause trouble for such a nice young man, what a shame, she’s so young to be that far gone.
I had trouble finding relationships at all, since most guys either didn’t want to deal with “a crazy bitch” (their disgusting words, not mine) or thought that they only had to love me when I was up, not when I was curled up in a ball on the couch, unable to go to work, get myself food, or do anything besides cry. Another guy I dated forced me off of my medication because it lowered my sex drive and made me sleep too much. I got lucky with The Fiance, who seems to be one of the only people out there able to see past my illness and recognize that yes, even if I do require a bit of additional care, I am still a human being who deserves the same love and respect as everyone else.
You, too, can join those elite ranks by knowing what you should never, ever say or do to your mentally ill friends and family. I assumed that most of these things were just common sense and basic human decency, but after seeing this kind of shit one too many times:
I realized that it was time for me to make a few simple corrections.
“All You Need Is Positive Thinking!”
There’s a bunch of variations on this one. Sometimes all I need is to watch a funny movie, or pamper myself at a spa for the day. Sometimes all I need is to immediately stop talking to whoever is saying this before I forget that they actually think they’re being helpful and legitimately don’t know any better.
Depression isn’t a switch you can flip on and off. If the difference between being too low to even get out of bed and prancing around slinging rainbows and sunshine out of my asshole was something as simple as watching Zoolander, I would have that shit playing on a permanent loop in my house. Yes, the brain is a powerful tool, and if you put your mind to something you’d be surprised at what you can accomplish, but it doesn’t really work when your brain chemistry is what’s causing the problem in the first place.
This is probably the type of thing I hear most often, and when I’m in the throes of a depressive cycle, it’s one of the most damaging. At that point I already feel like I’m burdening my friends and family just by being alive. I’ll smile and pretend to be magically cured while it eats away at me inside that “oh God, if this is what works for them, why doesn’t it work for me? Am I that broken? What if I’m not trying hard enough? I’m never enough. They really want me to do this but I’m failing, I’m failing them. I hate myself.”
Instead, try asking if there’s anything that you can do. The answer will probably be “no,” because short of medication there’s really not much that any one person can do to magically fix the problem, but it at least shows that you understand what’s going on, and a little understanding during these times can go a long way.
“You Should Go On Medication.”
Unless you’re a licensed physician and the person you are speaking to is a patient under your care, do not tell a mentally ill person that they should be on medication. It’s rude. It’s the equivalent of walking up to your grandmother and saying “Whoa, Granny, you should get a face lift.” That person may already be on meds — some of them take a while to show any effect at all, and the simple act of getting someone properly medicated can take years of dosage adjustments and prescription combinations — and may actually have improved quite a bit already as a result. No medication is 100% effective. There are still going to be glitches in the proverbial Matrix. But when it’s a matter of wanting to die for 27 days out of each month while unmedicated versus having a bad day maybe once every other month on meds, it’s a freaking nuclear launch forward.
There’s also a myriad of reasons why someone may choose not to go on medication. Maybe they’ve tried, but haven’t made any progress with them (frighteningly enough, this can happen). Maybe their medication has given them horrific side effects more debilitating than the illness itself. Without insurance, the price of a 30-day supply for many psychiatric medications is astronomical; CVS quoted me $600 for my Lamictal. Though there are many free or reduced-cost mental health services in various cities across the U.S., not every town offers them, and criteria may be different. If you’re just making enough so that you don’t qualify for assistance, but can’t afford an insurance premium — not all insurance programs will cover mental health services, by the way — or to pay out of pocket, you’ll find your options horribly limited.
And anyway, it’s none of your business. (If, however, somebody is talking seriously about hurting themselves, there are ways that you can and should step in.) Other deeply personal things you shouldn’t ask unless they’ve indicated it’s okay to do so: if they’ve ever been hospitalized, if you can see their scars, how they “did it” during suicide attempts, etc.
“If You Don’t Quit Being Negative, I’m Not Going To Talk To You”
I’ve always felt this to be an abhorrent concept. It basically says “Hi, I want to be your friend, but only when and if it’s convenient for me.” Instead of issuing ultimatums to a friend who’s having a hard time, why not take the time to see if they need someone to talk to? I’ve had this type of line used on me before and it’s extremely hurtful. Imagine if a good friend of yours walked up to you one day and informed you that if you didn’t stop being taller than them, they’d cut you out of their lives. It’d feel like shit, wouldn’t it? Don’t do it to other people.
It can be hard to see a loved one in pain, and even more frustrating to realize that you can’t make it all better for them. That much is understandable. It’s the same reason that some people find it difficult to visit a family member who’s in the hospital for a severe physical illness. With “invisible” illnesses, however, it’s easy to forget that the person you’re talking to is legitimately sick. Remember that they are not just acting out for attention or to get special treatment. They can’t help it any more than someone can help being paralyzed.
“You Don’t Have It So Bad Compared To x!”
The logic behind telling someone they shouldn’t be depressed because there are Darfur war orphans in this world is the same logic that would technically allow them to tell you that you shouldn’t be happy because Jay-Z is married to Beyonce and has like a billion dollars. Depression is not a pissing contest and you are not the gatekeeper who decide what emotions other people are allowed to feel.
I get that it’s an attempt to put things into perspective, really, I do. But with depression, there is no perspective. It isn’t logical and it won’t listen to reason, even if the person who’s suffering from it really, really wants to. If you’ve never been clinically depressed yourself, then I don’t think it’s possible to convey in words that bleak, hopeless feeling, the “knowledge” that there is no light at the end of the tunnel and nothing is ever going to get better. It permeates everything around you and sucks all of the joy out of life. You could sit in the middle of a Sanrio store hugging a Hello Kitty plushie and still feel lower than you’ve ever been before. And I sincerely hope that none of you ever have to experience it for yourselves, because I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
“That’s SO Cool!”
No. No no no no no no no no no.
My head nearly exploded the first time I realized that there are people out there who think mental illness is some kind of status symbol to be desired, to the point of self-diagnosing and claiming that they, too, suffer from (insert whatever happens to be “trendy” at the moment). There is absolutely nothing cool or fun about being mentally ill. You live your life in fear of discovery or, if you’re open about it like I am, trouble from other people about it. The side effects of the medications you’ve been all wistful about? They suck. You might get lucky and just gain a ton of weight, or your sex drive might vanish, you could have seizures, cottonmouth, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, muscle spasms, neurological issues, suicidal thoughts (a.k.a. the shit they’re supposed to be preventing), and hey, some of them have a tiny chance of just straight up killing you even when taken in normal doses. There’s a big difference between Prozac and Xanax. “Happy pills” don’t produce any extra sense of euphoria or make the oontz-oontz on your iPod sound like the color Wednesday. Typically, they put you into this emotional flatline where you’re not particularly sad but not particularly happy, either. You just are. It’s existence, pure and simple. Yes, if you have PTSD or an anxiety disorder, they will probably put you on anti-anxiety medication… but they aren’t going to give you the “good stuff” right out of the gate. They’ll probably give you something like Vistaril, which is non-addictive and has no effect other than making you pass the Hell out so that you’re too unconscious to be worried. Stroll into the doctor’s office and announce you want specifically Xanax or Ativan, and they’re going to give you a very dirty look before asking you to leave.
Additionally, stop saying things like “oh man, I was so depressed that they didn’t have those jeans in my size!” You weren’t depressed, you were disappointed. No wonder there’s so many people out there who think that depressed people just need a hug in order to “snap out of it.”
“You Can’t Do x, You’re Mentally Ill!”
Yes, there are some things that I can’t do because I am mentally ill. Part of my PTSD extends to my ability to drive — I can’t get behind the wheel of a car without having a severe panic attack — and only recently have I been able to feel “safe” enough to do simple things like take a bus by myself. For years, I flew all over the country by myself without the slightest concern. Then terrible shit happened and I found myself unable to even walk down a different aisle of the grocery store as my mother without my heart pounding. Eventually it got to the point that I couldn’t even leave my house. Literally. Not in a cute and quirky “oh antisocial gamer girl teehee” kind of way, I mean that I was physically unable to step over the threshold without completely breaking down.
I’m happy to report that I’m doing much better these days, thanks to some coping exercises I learned in therapy. I have to take things one day at a time, but even if it did take a little extra effort, I can now live a much more normal life.
I have, however, been “helpfully” informed that because I am mentally ill, there’s no way I could raise a child or even get married (and, on the flipside, The Fiance has had friends and family express the same concerns about me to him). In their mind, they told me, it would be dangerous for the other people involved because I could flip out at any time and end up shooting my husband and drowning the kids in the bathtub, despite all of the studies stressing that the vast majority of mentally ill people are not and never will be violent, an all-too-common misconception that’s probably at least partly responsible for the violent crimes perpetrated against us.
At first I wasn’t even hurt, I was pissed. Once I calmed down and realized that the person I was talking to was completely confused as to why I didn’t know this already and why I was taking it so personally, I took it upon myself to educate them a bit.
Mentally ill people are still people. I have said this many times already but I will continue to say it until it finally sinks in. It may require a few extra steps or a more roundabout way, but they can and will live productive and relatively “normal” lives. This isn’t just a reminder for the general population, it’s also a very loving reminder for anyone fighting with mental illness. I know what it’s like to feel that living like everyone else is impossible, that you’re always going to be “broken” and that life is going to be an uphill struggle for you no matter what. But you can do it. We can do it. It may be hard at times, but we’ve made it this far already, and that’s worth something right there. During your worst days, remembering this probably won’t make much of a difference, but tuck it away for the times that it can. Let’s cheer each other on.
“Well, I’m Having A Hard Time Too, But I’m Not Sad About It!”
This is the one that really gets me. Oh, thank you, wise one, why don’t you impart upon us your secrets of yoga or watching sunsets or “just smiling”? Don’t forget to take your gold star-shaped cookie on the way out! GOOD FOR YOU!
Everyone deals with things differently. Everyone has different thresholds for stress. Some people can take a lot, others not so much, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong is when these higher-threshold people decide to rub it in the faces of those who aren’t able to deal with things quite as easily, and that goes not only for those with a mental illness, but those who are just a little more sensitive as well.
A friend — though I’m rethinking the designation at this point — of mine posted this almost word for word as her Facebook status today, though she’s previously used just about every other “no-no” on this list. She directed it to everyone who’s posted recently about having a rough time. “Change your life if it’s so bad!” she insisted. “I don’t want to hear about it!” Instead of telling her to go fuck herself, I wrote this article, so at least some good came out of my aggravation.
“Outing” The Mentally Ill
Choosing to speak openly about your life with a mental illness is a deeply personal decision, and many choose not to do it because of the attached societal stigma. Nobody has a right to do it for them. It doesn’t matter if you’re telling another mentally ill friend that “oh, hey, Jessica has the same problem as you, you guys should talk!” or gossiping over coffee about how Billy Smith down the road had a creepy uncle that he still has nightmares about. You wouldn’t call your friend’s entire family over for dinner and casually announce to them all that he’s gay. (If you would, you’re a terrible person.)
Nor can you force a person to talk about their issues. I dread telling people I have PTSD because their initial “Oh” of surprise is usually followed up by “…so what happened?” I’m not comfortable talking about everything that’s happened to me. Some things I may never be able to talk about. Especially in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, dredging up the horrific events that caused it is not something you want to do. Reliving those events can trigger emotionally devastating flashbacks resulting in months of nightmares and constant panic attacks.
I dream of a day when being mentally ill will be no more “shameful” to society than having astigmatism or a broken finger. It won’t happen overnight, but we can get there, if only we’re all willing to open our minds and our hearts and stop being dicks to each other.