A few days ago there was a knock at our door. When I answered, it was a neighbor who had been reading our blog. She asked if I had time to talk with her about some things.
I had known before this encounter that she was trying to work through depression. She hadn’t told me; I’m not sure that she had told anyone outside of her family.
But I knew.
That’s kind of what happens when you experience something hard and significant like mental illness. You can usually tell when other people are suffering from the same thing.
It’s hard to describe how we know.
Is it something we see in their eyes? Is there a little quirk about them that resonates as familiar? Is there something that is imperceptible but that communicates spirit to spirit?
I don’t know.
I only know that I can usually recognize a fellow mentally ill person.
This neighbor and I visited for more than an hour. I talked about things I had learned. She just talked. I think it was a really good thing, as she hadn’t had the opportunity to do much of it before. She had tried to get some professional help, but several of the people had told her “just give it time and you’ll work through it.”
Kind of makes you want to scream, doesn’t it?
It goes to show just how hard it is for someone to understand exactly what it feels like to have your mind have a mind of its own, so to speak.
As I listened to her describe some of her symptoms and she saw me nodding, telling her that what she was feeling was indeed real and not imagined, the tears flowed down her cheeks. As she described some of the hardest parts of what she was going through and the things her family was suffering because of her struggle, I was able to tell her about personal experiences that showed her that I really did understand.
This kind of a connection is medicinal.
It is healing.
But it can only really come from someone else who has been there, deep in the trenches.
When it comes from someone else, someone who hasn’t been there, it has the potential to actually make things worse.
What do I mean by that?
Almost 25 years ago my mother died. You can say what you want, but when a young man loses his mother, it is a rough thing. When an older man loses his mother, it is a rough thing. There is something about that bond that can only be felt.
When it is lost, there is a hole that can’t be described.
Many people tried to reassure me. They told me about God’s plan, which I already knew. Some tried to point out the positive things about it, like she wasn’t suffering anymore. One of the worst was someone who came up to me, took my hands, and in all seriousness told me that they knew exactly how I was feeling because she had just lost her cat.
Yeah, you really can’t make this stuff up.
I know they were being kind. I know they were trying hard to help. I know they were doing what they thought was the right thing.
But only someone who HADN’T gone through losing a parent would even think to say things like that.
The one person I remember was a kind, older man who came to the viewing. He just put his arm on my shoulder and said “I’m so very sorry. We loved her very much.”
And I knew that he knew. He understood. He had been through it. One son to another, we bonded without any more words being needed.
It really is the same with mental illness, or I guess just about anything that is difficult for us. There is something about being heard, truly heard, by one who knows – truly knows.
Now when I am asked how I’m doing, I actually try once in a while to be honest about feeling like I’m losing my mind at times. Others, who perhaps are uncomfortable with the whole subject, will try to make light of things and say something like “Well, we’re all a little bit crazy, aren’t we.”
No one who actually knows what genuine, real “crazy” feels like would ever say something like that.
Or when I have tried to describe a rough day and how I worked so hard not to seriously hurt the innocent person in front of me, who hadn’t done anything to provoke me, the response was “Oh yes, I want to smack some people all the time.”
Believe me, there is a difference between being perturbed by someone and wanting to “just smack them” and feeling seriously murderous in your mind.
Trust us, we’ve felt both. They are NOT the same.
So when this wonderful, trusting neighbor told me about her fears of harming her family, I sadly nodded and said “yes, it’s very real isn’t it.”
For the first time she knew that someone else knew, and understood, and hurt with her that the pain was so deep and impossible to understand.
And in having someone else who recognizes how impossible it is to adequately describe, it suddenly feels a little more describable.
Because it really is real. We ache to be able to reach out and touch it, somehow use a scalpel to remove this tumor that is causing such damage.
But we can’t.
At least now, though, there is someone else, someone who is also trying to cut out the problem but can’t.
And it makes us feel that maybe we are not so crazy.
Kind of oxymoronic.
So, what would be the point of all this?
We can learn better how to help each other make it through.
If you can’t understand the pain of the person you are trying to comfort, because you haven’t experienced it yourself, first of all – what a blessing that is for you. We are glad you haven’t suffered.
But please don’t try to compare your experiences to something you know nothing about. It just hurts.
Secondly, if you do understand the pain and heartache, that can also become a blessing, because you do understand.
You can recognize it in others without them telling you. You just know. And because you know you can actually say, listen, and do what will really help.
Funny how both sides of it can be seen as a blessing, if we are willing to look closely enough.