I have a mental illness. However, doctors cannot agree on what mental illness I have. Over the past 20 years I have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Border line personality disorder, Bipolar and many other things. My current Doctor doesn’t believe I have any of those and instead is treating me for major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
The other day I had a panic attack at work. Unlike past panic attacks, no one even knew I had this one. I have really learned over the past few years how to calm myself and keep my anxiety mostly invisible to others. However, even, though no one saw the panic attack, I briefly told my co-worker that I had one. She said “Can’t you control those?” That response bothered me for many different reasons but mostly because here I thought I had controlled it. After all, no one even knew I had one.
Today I wanted to write about what mental illness feels like to me and what I wish other people could understand about it. I also want to touch on things not to say to someone who is depressed or anxious.
Anxiety and Depression are both manageable illnesses, To a certain extent, people can keep control over their mental illness, However, this does not mean that every one who has a mental illness can control it. It doesn’t mean that you can “snap out of depression or anxiety” or that you can just think positively and suddenly it will all go away. What it means is with a lot of really hard work you can prevent and manage most symptoms of mental illness most of the time. There will still be times when you can’t but you can learn to make those times happen less frequently and with less intensity.
The thing is, that a lot of people want a depressed person to manage it right now and right here. That just isn’t going to happen. If My co-worker had seen how I managed my depression and anxiety 5 or 10 years ago she wouldn’t have asked why I wasn’t controlling it, she would have been amazed at how well I did control and manage it. So while these things can be controlled and managed, it takes time and it takes learning how. Most people with mental illness have had it for a long time and have developed habits of how they cope with it. If the person never had a lot of support or counseling those habits will most likely not be good ones. Just as with any bad habit, these habits take time and work to overcome. You most likely wouldn’t tell a smoker who is trying to quit that they are bad for having withdrawals and setbacks, so why say that to someone who is trying to manage a mental illness?
For me, it took many years to get where I am at with my mental illness today, and I am still not where I want to be at managing it well. I learned that for me there are things I can do on a daily basis to minimize my emotional crashes. Not take them away completely, but reduce the frequency and intensity of them. Those things are : eating healthy, exercising, taking medication and journaling. once I am in a crash however, it gets more difficult to deal with it. Things I can do but may need support and encouragement in doing them, are, meditation, rest, talking to a safe person, journaling, exercising and praying.
Some of the things that people have said to or about me over the past several years that actually made it worse for me to cope and manage my symptoms are:
“Just think positive thoughts and you will not feel this way anymore”– this always makes me feel worse because I already feel bad, now I am being told that it is my fault because I am not positive enough. Being positive is a good thing and can help but for someone who is severely depressed it takes years and years of practice and doesn’t work immediately plus most people know they need to be positive but don’t know how when they are in crisis mode and when they are told to think positively they now feel worse because they can’t right now. depression and anxiety isn’t something that you can get nover in one day or a few hours. Sometimes it requires medication, counseling and other supports.
“Get up and move and you will feel better”– While exercising and focusing on getting yourself moving or concentrating on a project does help, a person who is severely depressed doesn’t feel like they can do this and this just puts more pressure on them of “one more thing I have to do” I had a friend who instead of saying this to me would invite me to go for a walk with her or come over and make jam or some other project. Sometimes, I would turn her down but, I always appreciated that she was thinking of me and willing to spend time with me and when I did accept the invitation, I always felt better then if she had just said “quit sitting there, get up and move”
“Serve others and quit thinking about yourself” This just puts a huge amount of stress on the already depressed person. The fact is, when I am feeling well I do serve and help others but when I am depressed or anxious I can’t. Let the person take care of him/herself before you start pressuring them to help others. Recognize when they do serve and comment on how great that is.
“I wish I had a mental illness to blame all my bad behaviors on” This is probably one of the worst things someone could have said to me. First of all you don’t wish you had a mental illness, and if you had one you might just find out that you aren’t any better than your mentally ill friend at dealing with it. Secondly, this really makes the person feel horribly about themselves, it makes the depression worse and lowers their self esteem. It just shouldn’t be said ever. Instead, say “this must be hard for you, I am sorry you are going through this, what can I do to help?”
“Everyone has problems” Some people absolutely do have it worse. But that doesn’t make your friend’s pain any less real or profound. Chances are if you do bring it up, he/she will also feel weak and pathetic … like he/she has no right to feel that way, which will, of course, make him/her feel worse. Instead; validate the person’s feelings and listen to what they have to say. try to be understanding of how difficult this is for them.
“Calm Down”, This would be okay to say to a 4 year old who is upset that you won’t buy him candy but it is not a good thing to say to someone who is having anxiety for no reason. The person having anxiety wants desperately to feel calm but doesn’t know how. instead: offer to play a game with them or do another activity that will help distract them. Do more listening than talking and just be there for the person.
I have even had people tell others, “Don’t be her friend she is psycho.” People with mental illness need and want friends but if you are someone who believes that they shouldn’t have friends than you probably aren’t the right one to be their friend. However, let others choose for themselves whether or not they want to be friends with the person.
The things I wish people could understand about me and my mental illness are:
#1 I am not my illness, I am a person that experiences a mental illness but there is much more to me than that and when I am feeling good, I have a lot to offer and can actually do amazing things.
#2 I am not consciously using my mental illness as a crutch, an excuse or to get attention. I simply have times when I just can’t do it by myself and it would be better if my friends, validated my feelings and listened to me while I talk or vent.
#3 Sometimes, I am mean or rude when I am depressed or anxious, while this is something I definitely need to work on and am working on, try to keep in mind that I am not really mad at you and I sometimes don’t know how to cope with the anger built up inside. It is ok to tell me that I am being unkind and that you will not put up with it but make sure you also give me a chance to find a healthier way to cope with the anger I am feeling and try to understand that I don’t like when I do this and usually feel very bad after.
#4 There are no little victories. With mental illness every victory and improvement should be celebrated and validated. When I know that other people notice that I am getting better it encourages me more than to think no one even notices or cares when I make improvements. I am more likely to keep trying if I know that it is noticeable to others and that they are cheering me on.
#5 Depression causes physical symptoms that are just as taxing on me as the emotional part. When I am depressed, I am so exhausted that it’s hard to think or do the things I normally do, I also experience stomach pain, headaches and muscle soreness that doesn’t go away with pain medication. These symptoms make it difficult for me to want to do things I normally like doing and makes it difficult to function on a normal level. Knowing this about someone who is depressed or anxious can help you understand that they really are sick and may need more nhelp and support than you just telling them to snap out of it.
It is important to realize that people with mental illness are still people with feelings, strengths and talents. They didn’t cause their illness, they aren’t faking their illness and they deserve to have friends like everyone else, If all else fails, remember the golden rule and treat others how you would like to be treated.