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Why Mental Illness Is As Serious As This Life-Threatening Disease

04/06/2014 11:05 EDT | Updated 06/06/2014 05:59 EDT

I have a close friend who has an anxiety disorder. They wrestle with it every day. Every morning, they wake up with their heart pounding like the drums of war before they march onto the battlefield of routine. Sometimes, they is able to take their medication and rise out of bed, completing every motion with enough heart to fool the rest of the world into thinking that they are normal. Other times, they can't make it out of bed for the performance. Fear, dread, sorrow, acceptance, repeat. This is what they have to deal with every day.

The battle to go through the daily motions isn't the only one my friend is fighting. They are constantly bombarded by the attitudinal beliefs of their peers, the yawns and sighs that come from the people around them as they try desperately to explain the source of their desperation. "Why don't you just relax?" say the people at work. "It's not that big of a deal." My friend pretends to listen and continues the motions. Fear, dread, sorrow, acceptance, repeat.

A few years back, I had another friend who was battling cancer. They were young, vibrant, and on the surface, completely healthy. In the length of a single breath, everything changed. Their daily routine of rise, drive, work, drive, sleep, repeat was interrupted by hospital visits. Every day, they had to live with knowledge that death was not a fable. After countless hours of chemo treatments and months of pretending that it was fine for the world to go on without them, they learned that they were in remission. They would always have to stay vigilant, but their old routine could finally return.

My two friends had a few things in common. First of all, they were both suffering from something their peers could not understand. The second thing was that they lived in constant fear of death. The third was that their illnesses would always have to be monitored.

Despite the similarities that they shared, there was one stark difference between them. Not once did a peer tell my friend with cancer to "get over it" or that what they were going through "wasn't that bad." My friend with the anxiety disorder, however, had to hear that every day.

I have never been through cancer treatments, nor have I been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I am, however, engaged in a life-long battle with Hemochromatosis, a disease that can lead to everything from cancer to heart failure. Like both of my friends, I receive treatments for my condition and am constantly monitored for any changes that could prove to be damaging to my health. However, like my friend with the anxiety disorder, I have been told on several occasions to "get over it."

Before I continue, I would like to say that I do not know what it is like to go through cancer treatments, nor would I say that what I have gone through is comparable. What I would like to speak to in this parallel is the attitudes of others. Though anxiety disorders and Hemochromatosis are not the same as Cancer, they are both afflictions that affect lives in a traumatic way. It would be considered heartless to tell a person with Cancer to get over themselves, and I think that it's time for the same to apply to all other life-affecting disorders.

One reason why nobody would dare to make light of a person's battle with cancer is that many have taken the time to inform themselves of the nature of the disease. Nowadays, everyone will be touched by cancer in one way or another, weather it be with a family member or on a more personal basis. We have campaigns to raise money and awareness for all forms of Cancer, and there are several Hollywood films that portray what it is like to be living with the disease.

When it comes to other diseases and disorders, however, be they depression, bipolar, Hemochromatosis, Pernicious Anemia, or CADASIL, there isn't always enough information gathered by the media to raise the proper awareness. There aren't a lot of Hollywood movies that portray what it's like living with some of these lesser known afflictions, and although the topic of mental health has become more prevalent in all forms of media, there is still a general idea that these things can be easily controlled with a few simple words. I am hoping that in the days to come, there will be better understanding as to how much good "control" does to a body that is fighting a seemingly endless battle.

All diseases and disorders affect the afflicted to some degree. When I was first diagnosed, I went through months of depression and anxiety as I tried to come to terms with the prospect that I would never be "normal" again. I lost friends in the process, friends who claimed that I was being "dramatic" because they never bothered to see that understanding the prognosis of a chronic illness takes time. It didn't matter what I had. The point was that it affected me, and the same was true for my dear friend with the anxiety disorder.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to empathize with your fellow human beings. If a person is suffering from something that you don't understand, it doesn't mean that their suffering is invalid. A person can't judge the anxieties of another person based on the scope of their own experience. Each human being is an individual, so take the time to inform yourself. If a friend is diagnosed with a disease that affects their every day lives in any capacity, do your best to be compassionate and ask them how you can help. Even if they don't have an answer, they will appreciate the time that you took to show that you care.

I have profound love and respect for anyone working through a chronic illness, whether it be physical or mental. In time, it is my prayer that people will find compassion to be infinitely more impelling than the prospect of tough love.

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