If you’ve decided to read this, you’re most likely in one of two camps when it comes to mental illness. Either you are going to completely agree with what I’m saying here and you support increased dialogue and understanding surrounding mental illness. Or you’re sitting there thinking, “Really? More mental illness talk?” And you disagree completely. Those are two of the three main camps I see making up the general public, (the third being the people that are oblivious to it and are highly unlikely to be reading this right now).
Mental illness is a topic that is discussed from time to time in our culture, but quite honestly, despite how often it may be discussed, it is still a topic that is misunderstood.
You might not be surprised to learn that there are a lot of writers with mental illness. (Or maybe you are surprised. If you are, just hang out with a bunch of writers for twenty minutes. You won’t be surprised anymore.)
Awareness has grown in recent years. There was an onslaught of ADD and ADHD diagnoses in the ’90s. There have been a great number of recent stories documenting heartfelt struggles with PTSD from veterans of war. (Have a look at Soft Spots by Clint Van Winkle if you’re looking for a book suggestion.)
Some recent pop culture references have even brought awareness to the subject as well. Silver Linings Playbook sheds light on the difficulties of bipolar disorder, both for the individual dealing with it, and his family and friends close to him. The character “Crazy Eyes” from the hit show Orange Is the New Black presents both a tragic and comedic character with mental illness. (Her nickname alone, though, is clear evidence of how we tend to treat people with mental illness.)
We have only just begun to scratch the surface as a society. Despite the public discussion of mental illness becoming more common over the last ten years, the public understanding of the topic has a long way to go.
In Jenny Lawson’s recent bestseller Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, she lays out how this misunderstanding often plays out in real life:
I can tell you that “Just cheer up” is almost universally looked at as the most unhelpful depression cure ever. It’s pretty much the equivalent of telling someone who just had their legs amputated to “just walk it off.” Some people don’t understand that for a lot of us, mental illness is a severe chemical imbalance rather than just having “a case of the Mondays.” Those same well-meaning people will tell me that I’m keeping myself from recovering because I really “just need to cheer up and smile.” That’s when I consider chopping off their arms and then blaming them for not picking up their severed arms so they can take them to the hospital to get reattached.
This passage from Lawson is illustrative of a common misconception surrounding mental illness, (while also being very humorous). There seems to be an idea that people that are mentally ill are either crazy and will likely end up in prison or homeless, or they aren’t that mentally ill and just need to try harder. I’m not sure why we have this misconception or where it started, but it needs to change.
Mental illness does not equal a crazy person. Depression does not equal someone who is perpetually sad and needs to cheer up. Anxiety does not equal someone who is nervous and needs to relax. We seem to understand that people that suffer from, say, cancer suffer within their own experience that is not necessarily comparable to another person’s experience. We also seem to know that someone with diabetes, for example, learns to balance the quality of their health through exploring different regiments of diet, exercise, and medication. For some reason, though, we haven’t extended these understandings to mental illness. We seem to quickly label someone with mental illness and place him or her into a box, but those labels couldn’t be further from the truth.
DEPRESSION ≠ SAD
ANXIETY ≠ NERVOUS
ADD ≠ STUPID
ADHD ≠ HYPER
SCHIZOPHRENIA ≠ CRAZY
Over the holidays I was visiting the mother of a close friend who passed away a few years back. His mother, who I love and respect, commented that she was in the middle of reading my book. After telling her how surprised and grateful I was that she was reading it, she replied that she really liked it, but said, “I have a bone to pick with you.”
“Oh yea?” I responded. She had my full attention. Every author knows this experience of wanting honest feedback, but fearing the worst.
“You’re an amazing young man,” she said, ignoring the fact that I’m about as middle-aged as you can get. “We love you. Why do you write something like that? Why do you write something that,” she paused, “dark?”
Included in my recent book Pieces Like Pottery is a short story called “Dies Cum Anxieta”—translation A Day With Anxiety. This is specifically what my friend’s mother was referring to when she was asking about writing about something so dark. Most everything in Pieces Like Pottery is fictional. This story is probably the closest to reality, although it is still fiction. Here’s an excerpt:
I put some waffles into the toaster and begin slicing a banana. I refill her sippy cup with whole milk and lay the feast before her on the table as I strap her into her booster seat. She beams at me with glee.
“Yea!” I say excitedly. “Ba-na-nas. Wa-fuls. Milk.” I point at each item in front of her as I sound them out. She lunges at a waffle and begins eating, giggling.
I start the coffee in hopes it will shake the rest of this sleepy haze from my brain.
Bananas and waffles? Really? Your wife would have made something way better. Your wife is so much better at this. How are you a parent? Your daughter probably hates that she’s stuck with you.
The coffee finishes brewing, and the coffee-maker beeps. I pour myself a cup and take a sip.
“Dada. Haaahhhttt,” my daughter says, pointing to the coffee cup in my hand.
My God, she is wonderful. How did she get so smart? I notice three banana slices on the floor around her. She smiles at me and then not so innocently says, “Uh-oh.”
Soon the three of us are racing around finalizing our morning routine. I hug my baby girl and give her a kiss on the forehead. I hug my wife, and we kiss for a moment before our daughter separates us. “That’s my mama,” her look says to me. Message received. We venture in our own directions—my wife’s off to drop our daughter at daycare before heading to the company she owns and runs; I’m off to walk to my desk job.
Your wife thinks you’re disgusting. She settled for you, ya know? You do know that, right? She barely tolerates you. Did you see that look she gave you after she kissed you?
I sit down at my desk to begin my day.
I wrote this as a small depiction of anxiety, yes, but also what I believe is a universal experience of self-doubt, fear, and shame. (If you’ve never had an experience with shame, congratulations. You should be in the Guinness Book.)
So my friend’s dear mother says, “You’re an amazing young man. We love you. Why do you write something like that? Why do you write something that…dark?”
While I know plenty of people who would dispute her claim that I am amazing—who needs enemies with friends like you, right?—I understood her point. What she was saying is that I am a joyful person who loves life. She was saying that often times I love to be in social settings and I am happy being around people. So why would I say those things to myself? (Ignoring the fact that this is a work of fiction, I guess.)
But herein lies the rub.
I am joyful. I do love life. I am inquisitive and have a tremendous love of learning. I am social and love spending time in the company of others. I have a happy life, but that doesn’t mean I am free of mental illness, nor does my mental illness mean I am incapable of a robust, happy, and fulfilling life. My friend’s dear mother meant well and I don’t resent her question one bit, but it is indicative of how we as a society handle mental illness.
A number of years ago I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder. However, my diagnosis merely elucidated, for me at least, the fact that even though the medical field’s awareness of mental illness is far beyond that of the public at large, even the medical field still has tremendous room for growth. I do have anxiety, but it is only a piece of the puzzle that is my mental health. It’s called a spectrum for a reason. I like to think of my “illness” as the Buri Cocktail—an appetizer of ADHD, a main dish of anxiety, a garnish of OCD, a side of depression, and some addictive personality tendencies for dessert. (Wait? That’s not a cocktail? Aw man. I’ve been making drinks all wrong.)
In my immediate family only one generation removed, there is a whole host of mental illness—including ADD, ADHD, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, hypochondria, OCD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, to name a few.
(I should point out that the number of relatives, only reaching back to my great grandparents, exceeds 100. There are 36 immediate cousins just on my mother’s side of the family. So we’re not talking about all these things in just a half dozen individuals—that would be crazy! What can I say? Us Midwestern Catholics have large families: It’s the Catholic way. Hey, it gives lots of hands to help out around the farm. Note: I did not grow up on a farm.)
With all the history of mental illness, our family reunions don’t sound like something you would like to attend, right?
But this is exactly the point—the family reunions are fantastic. I know a lot of non-family members that do want to attend our family reunions. The love and the joy is abundant. There is no differentiation between those of us in the family with a mental illness and those of us without. There is not a designated gathering for high-functioning, jovial family members that sing and dance and have fun, and another designated gathering for us crazies. (It’s ok. I can call us crazy. I didn’t convert to mental illness for the jokes.)
This is what we as a society need to understand about people with mental illness: I am not my mental illness and my mental illness is not me.
In a recent review of my book, the reviewer called out “Dies Cum Anxieta”—the story excerpted above—as a story to which she could not relate and that the character seemed like a sad person. I’m not going to lie, that was a hard review to read. I am fine getting negative reviews. I have had a reviewer publicly say the book was terrible after only reading roughly ten pages of it. I had a reviewer call me blasphemous and anti-religious, despite the fact that I, the person and the author, am not the book and I am Catholic, and despite the fact that the book has spiritual and religious themes throughout. I didn’t mind these negative reviews at all. Each person has the right to their opinion and any good book should have negative reviews. If it doesn’t, it’s probably not a very good book.
We need more dialogue without fear of being labeled. Until then, let’s at least all agree not to tell someone with depression to just cheer up. Or someone with anxiety to just relax. Can we at least agree on that?
The reviewer that said she could not relate and called the character a sad person, though, that one was hard for me. I guess it just reaffirmed for me how misunderstood mental illnesses are, and it made me sad for those lovely individuals who suffer from their own form of mental illness far more significant than mine. The reviewer said that she could not relate, but we don’t need to be related too. We just want to be understood. We don’t want to be dismissed simply because of our mental illness. We want to be loved, not for who we are when we’re at our best, but loved for who we are. Full stop.
Each person’s journey with mental illness is unique. Each person’s health plan for their mental illness is unique and, just like a cancer patient or a diabetic, that health plan needs to be constantly adjusted. It’s not just a matter of cheering up or calming down. If only it were that simple.
For myself, I try to watch what I eat, (although my wife eats far more healthy than I do, so I could be better at it). I’ve found my diet has a tremendous impact on my mental health. I also pray and meditate. I try to exercise often, but again, I could exercise more. I find help in medication and therapy as well. These things all help maintain things, but they don’t fix it. They’re not a cure. The chemical imbalances still remain and some days are better than others. And some days are worse. Much worse.
We need to reach a point as a society where we can discuss mental illness without fear of judgment or worse, fear of the assumption of exactly how that mental illness defines us as a person. We need more dialogue, dialogue without fear of being labeled. Until then, let’s at least all agree not to tell someone with depression to just cheer up. Or someone with anxiety to just relax. Can we at least agree on that?