This is a special week: Mental Illness Awareness Week. While I have some issues with including “Illness” in the name instead of “Health,” I think this is one truly important week. And I am honoring this week with daily blog posts, guest writers, and lots of real talk. It’s time to speak the truth, my truth, and not be afraid of the stigma. I hope you join me.
Today as we kick off the week, I want to answer a really important question: What IS Mental Illness. It’s not an easy question, and so I’m going to start with defining what is NOT Mental Illness.
- Mental Illness is not the result of personal weakness.
- It is not the product of poor character or dodgy upbringing.
- Mental Illness is not a bad day or even a bad week.
- It is not crying for no reason once in a while.
- It is not an isolation sentence.
- It is definitely not a death sentence.
Those “nots”? Those are characteristic of the stigma that surrounds Mental Illness. Those of us who suffer from invisible illnesses, like Mental Illness, bear the burden of that stigma daily. It’s why we are often silent. It’s why we shy away from telling people we see a therapist, or take medicine, or cut, or have suicidal thoughts. People hear those things and assume SO MUCH. Giving up on assuming is the first step in truly helping your friend or lover with their struggles.
Mental Illness is unique for every sufferer. There are endless combinations of diagnoses that someone can hold and every diagnosis manifests itself somewhat differently for each person. I can only talk about my own illness, but for once I am going to be painfully honest. Here goes nothing.
I have been diagnosed with Major Depressive Syndrome with Acute Panic Disorder and mild Agoraphobia. And I am a cutter. Big words, those. Basically, I struggle daily with every blasted thing I need to do. It’s hard to get up sometimes. It’s really hard to be in a crowd. It’s hard to settle my own mind and stop it from racing. It’s just hard. And sometimes, when I can’t take it anymore, I physically hurt myself in a twisted attempt to make the invisible pain stop.
Outside factors absolutely weigh on my mental health issues. When my kids are sick, when I argue with anyone, when things don’t go as planned…. I suffer. These are issues that medicine helps, but cannot control completely. We all want a magic pill that we swallow and become normal. It’s a pipe dream and it is discouraging to know that we can’t have that.
A depressive episode or a panic attack is not something I can snap out of at will. Adding pressure to act normal only exacerbates the issues in someone who is suffering. When I am told to get over it, to fake it till I make it, to just deal…. Immediately I’m filled with a sense of overwhelming disgrace. I’ve let someone I care about down. I’ve burdened them. I need to try harder.
The fact of the matter is this: I can only hide for so long. I can only fake it for so long before I burn out and crash even harder than before. It’s at those times that I am most at risk of cutting. It’s really not easy to admit that I do this. SO many people look at cutting like an emo fad. That people who cut are just looking for attention. Time for a little bit of honesty. Are you ready?
So fucking what if that teenage girl with cuts all up and down her arm is doing it to get attention? Imagine the deficit of attention she must be feeling in order to slice her own skin to get you to notice her pain. When you hurt so bad that you take a razor, or a needle, or your own nails to yourself in order to escape the pain, you are in terrible shape. The last thing you need is judgment. But that is so often what we receive. Harsh judgment. Derisive laughter. Painful sarcasm. Easy answers that mean nothing. And people who think you’re going to kill yourself.
I don’t cut because I want to die. I cut because I hurt so bad that I need an escape. It is twisted to a normal brain, but the reality is that cutting helps diffuse the inner turmoil for just a second. And then the guilt piles on and it is even worse than before. But for a moment, the cutting helps. It is an attempt to care for myself in the most unnatural way possible. And I have scars on my body now that remind me daily of that pain. Harsh reminders of why I need therapy and good friends and a daily cocktail of meds to keep me stable.
I haven’t cut in four months. I’m damn proud of that, but it has been really hard. There are days when every moment requires concentration NOT to scratch at my own skin. I’ll finger my scars. I’ll text my friends. I’ll keep my hands busy with cross stitch. ANYTHING to keep from allowing myself the opportunity to slip up. With counseling and a lot of vigilance from a good friend, I remain self-harm free. For now.
But the monster is always there waiting. And frankly, it’s terrifying.
Tomorrow, I’ll explore ways friends and family can support those with mental health issues in a healthy way. If there are any topics you feel should be touched on, please let me know here or privately via email. I’ll do my best.