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Can We Let Go of These Mental Illness Stereotypes?

07/21/2014 12:59 EDT | Updated 09/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Although recently diagnosed with depression, and sadly with each visit to my "team" of mental health professionals as more disorders continue to be unveiled, the question I've asked myself, and others have also wondered is: How come nobody saw the mental illnesses sooner?

After all, I have openly talked about my use of laxatives for years; I make no secret of the hours and days spent avoiding food, and more specifically eating it; I talk about my death and my desire to die as though I were sharing a favourite recipe; my naps are long, and very often I refuse to actually wake from them, instead pulling covers over my head and pointing to the door with a hissed, "Get out get out."

Mental illness is only recently being spoken of, and certainly during the years when perhaps my disorders could have been treated by health professionals, my parents would whisper the word "depression" when speaking of it about someone they knew as though it was a swear word. And depression in conjunction with an adolescent, more specifically their teenage daughter, was likely not even a possibility in their view.

It is interesting that an affliction so vicious that joy is an emotion I cannot even begin to understand much less describe, has escaped not only family and friends, but also GPs and psychologists. The problem, I suspect, lays in the carefully crafted societal stereotypes that have us believing that those suffering from debilitating mental illnesses appear unhealthy. Their thinning hair, dark eye circles, sunken cheekbones, facial twitches, listlessness, unfocussed stare, perhaps manic conduct or conversely their flat affect, are obvious and as such provide potential remediable possibilities. This is not to say, however, that those whose disorders do have them exhibiting some or all of the previously mentioned characteristics are acknowledged and/or treated by health professionals.

But stereotypes do facilitate diagnoses, leaving those, and I dare say the majority of us who still function well at our jobs and participate, however unsatisfactorily in the family unit, to continue grappling at invisible buoys throughout the day in order to get through it, and finally twist in pain under our covers at the end of the day; empty, lost, defeated, and breathless. Clutching the pillow, after several hours of participating in the world, we are powerless to the crushing agony of living which is so overbearing that emotional and physical paralysis sets in, inhibiting the movement of even one body part, other than to reach for the box of tissue where finally, after hours of ripping chest pain we've successfully hidden from everyone, we release floods of tears and an ever present admission that life did not get better today, as we have been told by those we've shared these gut-wrenching feelings with.

This post is for those who believe the stereotypes about mental illness. This post is for those who assume that mental illness means that one is useless, incapable of rational thought, unable to function in society, and devoid of a pleasant demeanor. I am here to confirm that mental illness does not always manifest obviously.

People with mental illnesses, be it depression, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, can and will:

1. Smile -- it just may not be deeply felt

2. Laugh -- but it may not be authentic

3. Allude to "being fine" -- even if we may not be certain how that really feels

4. Take care of our appearance -- because it hides how ugly we really feel

5. Hold your hand or hug you -- since for a brief second we cling to the hope that one day we will feel just like you

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