What I Know About Mental Illness

Let me tell you what I know about mental illness.

It’s a beast to live with. It’s a struggle to manage the symptoms, the irrational irritability, the overwhelming sadness, the bone chewing anxiety. It throws everything in my life off balance and requires some serious skill to navigate.

I don’t think anyone is ever really prepared to live with mental illness and the way it constantly changes, morphs, grows, and overtakes life. See, it’s not just one thing that you can learn to manage, like missing a limb or something. It’s an illness that can get progressively worse, change with the seasons of life, can lie dormant for a while, then bite back with a vengeance. It’s a gelatinous blob of bad feelings, lies, physiological symptoms, and emotional pain that follows you around everywhere.

The symptoms are what get me. They loom large and at times blind me to life outside this experience of mental illness. I get irritable with my kids for no reason. I drop into the deep, dark pit of depression. The suicidal thoughts. The self-harm urges. These hard things seem to fill up my day, steal my time, my social interaction, my desire for life. Managing the symptoms is sometimes a full-time gig, something that can’t be ignored otherwise a real mental health crisis might happen, something like a suicide attempt, or (in my case with bipolar) full-blown psychosis and mania.

So this is me living with mental illness, constantly striving to keep ahead of the symptoms, constantly trying to reorient myself in the black fog, constantly trying to fight my rain that sometimes is trying to kill me.

See, mental illness isn’t an outside virus or infection. It’s a broken brain. Dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and all these other chemicals fuel our emotions and thought. When they are out of balance, in excess, or just plain missing from the brain, things go wonky, to say the least. Intrusive thoughts about death, anxieties, and a host of dark things aren’t some demon planting them in my head. They are the result of this chemical imbalance. I mean, I still have to deal with them as if they were a foreign voice whispering them in my ear, but the reality is that my brain is birthing these things that I have to fight against. So, it’s this constant internal battle against a sick brain.

This is why I take a handful of drugs every morning. These antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers work wonders to balance out this sick brain of mine. They give me an edge in the battle against this bipolar beast that stalks me. It’s medicine and it’s not crazy for me to take it. I’m not buying into “big pharma” and some sort of lie that I need medicine to function. For me, nature, vitamins and supplements, and healthy living just aren’t enough to fully combat mental illness. The symptoms are there and get much, much, much worse when I don’t take my medicine. I’m not hurting my body with these drugs. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Medicine helps level out and heal this broken brain of mine. Medicine helps me function and live a stable life.

And it is completely possible to live a stable life when you have a mental illness. Those of us with a diagnosis aren’t doomed to a life that needs to be locked away, hidden, separated from society. We aren’t automatically going to be volatile, unable to hold a job, anti-social, or whatever other tropes about mental illness we have come to believe. We are writers, doctors, and customer service agents. We are contributing to society, paying taxes, raising families. Yes, things are hard at times. Yes, we may have to work harder at “normal” things sometimes, but we are not some sort of pariah.

I’m also not a project to be saved. While I appreciate people’s care and concern for my well-being, the needless advice about what I should do to cure bipolar grows old. Everything from exercise more to have more faith and prayer to trying essential oils gets brought out when people find out about my illness. It’s as if people feel that since they don’t have the illness they are somehow experts on my health and well-being. I’ve spent years working with my doctor, my psychologist, and my psychiatrist – all skilled medical professionals – to develop a treatment plan for my mental illness. I’ve also educated myself, looked into different options, become healthier in my living, all in the attempt to manage this bipolar illness I have. Please, don’t presume that some pseudo-scientific story you read on Facebook takes precedent to my lived experience. I know my illness, and I know myself. And believe me, if it was simply a matter of getting the right nutrients or oils, I would be on that in a heartbeat.

This illness I have is an actual medical condition that I live with. It’s a chronic condition, one that will most likely be with me for the rest of my life. I’m going to be treating this condition until I die. This isn’t something I’m making up or somehow lying about. It’s real, even if (maybe especially because) it’s in my head. You may not be able to see my disability, but that doesn’t make it any less real. It’s hurtful when people say things like, “depression isn’t a thing. I mean everyone gets sad.” Or “I had anxiety once. I was able to get it under control.” Dismissive comments like this add to the stigma and shame that surround mental illness. Mental illness is real, and it’s different than the normal emotions and experiences of the human condition. Sure, everyone gets sad and deals with anxiety, sometimes in extreme measures. But that’s not the same as clinical depression of an anxiety disorder. And that’s not even to mention the psychosis, I flirt with. Don’t discount my illness just because you can’t imagine what it’s like to live with.

Look, this is what I know about mental illness: it’s a bitch to live with. It’s a complex thing that affects each person differently. That’s what makes it so tricky to treat. What works for me may not work for you, medicine included. Mental illness is an imp that gets its sticky fingers into everything in a person’s life. I mean, when your emotions and very thoughts are all sorts of twisted do you really think you can simply set that aside and go about your life normally? It’s all-encompassing. And that’s not to mention the ways we self-medicate to try and cope. Sex, drugs, booze, food… All these things we try and use to deal with our out of whack brains often times only compound the illness.

If we refuse to talk about it though, it’s only going to get worse. Mental illness thrives in isolation, darkness, ignorance, and shame. Our society has come a long way in how it deals with mental illness, but we have miles left to go. There is still so much stigma surrounding this already hard thing, so much stigma attached to human beings just because of an illness they have. It’s not right. But this is why we talk about it, why it’s important to listen to the stories and experiences of those of us with a mental illness. Listen, believe, and accept. Mental illness isn’t contagious, and the people in your life that suffer deserve your love and support. A good support community is vital in treating mental illness is a healthy way. You can be part of the treatment, part of the healing.

Bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, addiction, and the whole host of other mental illness are part of the fabric of our reality. It doesn’t do any good to bury our heads in the sand and pretend like they aren’t real. NAMI reports that 1 in 5 people deal with mental illness issues these days. Chances are if you yourself don’t have a mental illness, you know a few people who do. Listen to their stories. Believe their experiences. Be part of their support system. Help us normalize mental illness in society so that more people can get help without shame.

This is what I know about mental illness: It’s real, it’s hard, it requires treatment and support, and it’s just another illness. There’s nothing special about this disease as compared to say diabetes or thyroid issues. It’s the human body not functioning as it should. There’s no shame in that.  There isn’t something especially awful about mental illness, even if it is such an internal battle. It’s just another sickness. Sickness can be lethal, but it doesn’t have to be. But first, we have to get rid of the shame and stigma around getting help for mental illness. The best way to do that, hear the stories and see the full lives of people living with mental illness. We know what we’re talking about because we live with this every day. See us as someone with just another medical condition. Support us as we seek treatment. Walk with us through the hard times.

All of this is my reality of living with mental illness. I hope it gives you some insight into the lives of people around you who live with these illnesses. But listen to their stories. Mental illness is different for each person. Don’t assume that I can speak for the entire population affected by mental illness. Still, I hope you will hear my words they will help you see those of us suffering. We deserve to be seen.

  • harrisco

    Thank you, Aaron. I like the way you put this: “Don’t discount my illness just because you can’t imagine what it’s like to live with.” Families and communities have their own coping with illness to do–and this (non) response is a kind of denial. It adds to the pain and isolation of illness for the one who is suffering. People run away–as if that helps anyone. The people who stay are worth their weight in gold–those who nurture you on the bad days, stick around for the good days and begin to learn how to tease more of the second out of the first. They are the ones who show up. And they are doing some incarnational loving. Prayers of thanks for all who show up and do the work of love.

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