Yesterday someone really pissed me off. Yup, I said it. It wasn’t anything specifically they SAID…it was all about their REACTION. After I gave an honest answer about how I was feeling — “I’ve been better” — I got that look. The look of pity but not in a “I’m sorry you don’t feel well” way, more like a “Spare me your sob story and suck it up,” way accompanied by a faint eye roll and touch of dismissiveness. I bet you know what I mean. We’ve all experienced it at some point in response to any number of issues.

I hate it when people react that way. I’d even go so far as saying I resent it. Of course I realize being resentful is not ok on my end, but I’m just being honest. Now don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of people who are empathetic and caring even when they don’t get it. They still believe what I am saying. It’s when I hear or read stories about people who truly believe it’s “all in our head” or that we should “try a little harder and stop feeling sorry for ourselves,” that really leaves a pit in my stomach. I’ve heard from many people who feel the same way due to reactions they’ve received once they’ve admitted to having a mental illness. I am writing this as a response to anyone who doesn’t take mental illness seriously or they simply don’t get it.

Dear _______________:

First, please understand that Bipolar Disorder and Depression are REAL. They are medical conditions which have been documented, studied and proven to exist just as diabetes and heart disease are serious medical conditions. You need to understand that when I am sick I am not just sad or in a bad mood. At the other end of the spectrum when I seem to possess the ability to get a million things done and have perfected the art of multitasking, it is not a relief. It is usually a sign of impending disaster. Quite frankly there is usually a runaway train in my brain that is speeding out of control, doomed to crash and throw me back into the pit.

Consider this: If I suddenly grabbed my chest and said I was having a heart attack, or began vomiting because of the flu would you tell me to snap out of it? Would you expect me to try a little harder? Would you tell me to stop exaggerating? Would you expect me to pray my way out of the heart attack? Or would you be more apt to believe me because you are witnessing the physical symptoms taking over?

What if I called in sick because I literally couldn’t stand in front of a room full of kids for over 6 hours because of a fever? Would you accuse me of being a wimp? You could touch my forehead and feel the fever but when I’m manic or having a breakdown you can’t see the chaos in my brain. It does not mean that because YOU can’t feel or see it, it is not there.

If my thought process failed and I had difficulty with comprehension or conversing as a result of a brain tumor would you judge me then? Or would you insist I do whatever necessary to take care of myself offering to help however you could?

There is no easy test for mental illness but for all of us who suffer it’s as real and as terrifying as a brain tumor or heart attack. Just because I’m smiling on the outside doesn’t mean my brain isn’t shutting down or that I’m doing fine on the inside. I could be merely one step away from the edge of the cliff and ready to jump.

A heart attack is a life threatening condition which is taken very seriously. When I’m depressed or manic please don’t write it off as ‘that’s just the way she is’, when it can be just as life threatening. In the case of mental illness though, death is caused by suicide which is very often considered selfish so it is not looked upon through the same lens as death caused by other medical conditions. NO ONE who has ever considered suicide has come to this point willingly or selfishly.

Just as all these medical conditions are real, so are illnesses that occur in the brain. Just as a heart attack can sneak up on you out of nowhere, so can the symptoms of mental illness. One moment I may be fine, the next I could find myself confined to bed or being admitted to the hospital. Just as it takes time to recover from a heart attack or to get insulin under control it takes time to stabilize the chemicals in my brain. Of course there are steps I can take to prevent relapse and to help keep things under control. Everyone heals at their own pace and through different means no matter what the illness. However simply ‘changing my thoughts’ or ‘thinking positive’ won’t miraculously cure me. I realize those approaches can help but sometimes it simply is not under my control no matter how positive I try to be. My thought process is greatly compromised due to chemicals and disorder in my brain. I cannot will my way out of it. Trust me…I’ve tried and felt extremely guilty when it has not worked. So when you don’t take me seriously it hurts.

Ask yourself this: would you willingly make me feel guilty for having the flu? You may not even realize you are doing it, but please don’t pass judgment on me for something I would never make up or exaggerate and cannot control. All I’m asking for is some compassion and willingness on your part to understand. Help me to fight this battle because it’s not easy to do on my own. Let’s work together to break the cycle of judgment and resentment.

With love and grace,

A loved one suffering from mental illness

The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance. ~ Nathaniel Branden

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up. ~
1 Thessalonians 5:11