What does it mean to have mental illness?

Kind of a scary question – everyone is certain that this is something that definitely happens to others but NOT to them. No one really ever wants to admit that they have a mental illness problem. Because, that means that I am, well you know, nuts, right? No, I’m not nuts, nope not me.

And yet, the truth is: I am.

It took me many years to finally understand and recognize that all these things that have always been different about me are actually things happening in my brain that aren’t necessarily happening in other’s brains. It took even longer to accept it (actually, I think I am still on that journey). Some days I continue to fall in the trap of “if I just push really hard through it I can be like others”. Yet, at the end of the day I know deep inside that I’m not like the other people around me.

That can be really discouraging. And lonely.

The truth is that with mental illness, a person has to expend so much more energy to just do things that many others can do instinctively and reflexively. It takes focus to not hurl hateful statements at others; it takes work to keep the tears from falling for no reason; it takes effort to reach out and pick up that dish or push that vacuum.

Others will say things like “Oh, I know just what you mean, I have days that I am so tired I couldn’t do a thing” or “We all feel like that from time to time”. I know that they mean well. Their heart is in the right place. They are trying to just “buck us up”.

But there really is a difference. I KNOW the difference.

I know what it is like to be pretty tired from a long day at work and feel like “Man, I’d rather do anything than get up and do the dishes”. It is a completely different universe from “I really wish the house would catch fire right now and I could just close my eyes and let it take me because I don’t have any energy left to do what needs to be done.” There is something very real, very physical happening that is fighting our every move and effort.

It’s not fair that others can do things without thought, things that takes planning and focus on my part to attempt, without any guarantee of success.

Does that mean that I don’t have to try? Do I get a pass?

Life isn’t fair. And that’s okay.

I know that every other person has things that are so hard for them, things that I probably don’t really struggle with. I will never be an alcoholic. I will never be addicted to gambling. I’m simply not wired that way. Others are. Everyone struggles and everyone has the responsibility to overcome the best they can.

Maybe that’s worth repeating: Everyone struggles and everyone has the responsibility to overcome the best they can.

My problems are my problems and my responsibility. But mental illness is its own special brand of hell and has the potential to reach out and cause pain to others. The news has ample illustrations of this. So in that way my problem becomes everyone’s problem.

That isn’t fair either. Not to you, not to me.

We can continue to shake our heads and express horror at the tragedies that surround us because of it. Or, we can take a step towards each other and try to see things from the other’s perspective.

What would be a good place to start? What if each of us really tried to understand what THE OTHER PERSON needed (not necessarily what we think they need)?

Here are just a few ideas:

I think that you need me to recognize that I have a problem. You need me to acknowledge that I need help in dealing with it, and then get that help and keep fighting every day. You need me to accept that my life will forever be different than what I had originally planned it to be. And I need to find peace with that.

I think that I need you to pay closer attention to me and little signals that I may send. I need you to let me know with love when things are getting out of control and give me a chance to catch it before things get ugly. I need you to let me know that it is okay that I am trying so hard to keep up, and that my best is good enough in your eyes. I need you to still treat me like I’m still one of you – I just have a unique set of quirks. I need to know that you don’t find my differences distasteful.

Everyone struggles and everyone has the responsibility to overcome the best they can.

Having mental illness doesn’t need to be a life sentence that segregates us from the rest of society. With effort from each side of the aisle we could meet in the middle. Who knows, we may even find that we like being around each other!

So, how about I look outside of myself enough to help you in your personal struggle to overcome things that are hard for you?

Please know that I am so very, very grateful for all the help and acceptance I get from you.

If we choose to stop and really look at those around us, take a moment to see if there isn’t something simple that we could do that would make their day just a little easier, then pretty soon each of us will find that we aren’t dancing alone.

5 thoughts on “What does it mean to have mental illness?”

  1. I’m finally on my computer and can leave a comment! I have really enjoyed reading your blog so far, Greg. I had no idea you were such a terrific writer. The imagery you create with your words is awesome! But then again, I’ve always thought you were a great person, mental illness or not.

    I know there’s a lot of debate on the message of the movie Frozen lately. I’ll give you my take… because I think it applies to what you’re saying here. The message I got from Frozen is that we each have some thing (or things) about us that we struggle with to understand and to know what to do with. That thing can be a really good thing and yet still be considered a bad thing by others. Some examples would be our passion, being an introvert/extrovert, understanding people at a core level, etc., even mental illnes. Because we’re all learning and growing in this mortal experience, we may end up using our idiosyncrasies in a way that hurts other people. People may tell us that our idiosyncrasy is bad and we must hide it away. We may believe them and do so. But in the end, we really need to be allowed to discover ourselves and our peculiarities, and this must be done by the individual, most often in the privacy of their own mind. By so doing, we will discover how to use those differences to bless the lives of those around us.

    In the case of mental illness, there are some really tough things to deal with, but there are also some really wonderful things about people with those challenges. Many times they tend to be some of the more passionate, loving, caring, giving people in our lives. I agree whole-heartedly with what you said about helping and accepting each other. No matter what ticks or doesn’t tick within each one of us, we are all amazing in some unique way. That uniqueness can make us feel lonely, but it can also be the very thing that connects us intimately with others. Personally, when I am able overlook another’s “mess-ups”, as they are figuring themselves out, it helps me to enjoy the “got it right” even more. I hope others feel the same about me. 🙂

    Keep writing. I’m glad to call you friend. 🙂

    1. Lori,

      I think you are right. We all have the task of digging below the surface of ourselves and finding the pot of gold that is hiding there. The digging can be painful, and in the process we mess up and our pick and shovel smack into and dump dirt on others around us – especially those we love the most.

      But the pendulum swings both ways. Just as we experience the tough days and the madness we also get to experience the passion and deeper beauty. We really do, as you say, get to look for moments into and understanding people at the core level. That’s worth all the other “stuff” that may come with it.

      Thank you for being one who is willing and able to connect intimately with those who get to rub shoulders with you. Not wasting energy focusing on other’s “mess-ups” leaves all the more for the true moments of joy. Thanks for your example.

  2. One of the hardest things for me about mental illness, or depression as I like to call it, is watching the results of my struggle affect my children. Not only do I fight to understand and conquer my depression, I now watch my children do the same. Does it never end? Wait, that’s the depression talking…right?

    1. Could be the depression talking, or it could be looking closely at things and trying to see what tomorrow may be like. Knowing you, I would imagine it is the latter. Kind of funny though, how a struggle in a family can actually help bring each member together and they become stronger. Tough stuff tends to make us tougher when we look at each other and acknowledge we see they are doing the best they can. Tracy, at the end of the day, internalize that your best is good enough. It helps tomorrow be just a little better.

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