This one goes out to the naysayers, the ones who insist that mental illness is "all in your head", that it can be "snapped out of". This one goes out to the people who can't fathom the darkness and can't understand the internal pain. Here are the things I wish you knew about mental illness. Here are the things I wish you knew about me and people like me, because we walk the streets beside you. We sit beside you in the subway. And we're your friends and family members.
When you don't know, you can't understand. And this is written from my point of view as a sufferer of mental illness only. I don't pretend to speak for others, or to understand their personal struggles. But some symptoms are similar, and if you find yourself echoed in this article, I pray you, too, can find peace and understanding as we break through the barriers of stigma surrounding our lives and our experiences.
The first thing I wish you knew is that I don't choose to be like this. Whether it's my brain chemicals that are different than yours, or a situation I've experienced (and for me it has been both), I don't make a choice to have mental illness any more than a cancer sufferer chooses to have cancer. My symptoms are simply different, and they are ruled by my brain, which makes it seem like I can control them. I wish you knew what a struggle it was sometimes to act normal, to keep smiling, to pretend that I'm just like everyone else. In reality, every nerve ending is buzzing, my legs are almost imperceptibly shaking, and my heart is beating a million miles a minute while I try to control the compulsions and obsessions in my brain. In reality, I would like to be safely in bed, away from the scary things in the world, in the cocoon of my apartment, ignoring everyone.
But I know that I can't live my life that way. And when I'm having a bad day, and all you can see is irrationality and absence and a strange energy that I can't quite hide away, I wish you understood that it's taking every single cell in my body not to leave the outside world and hide. I wish you could see that, because I know you would understand if you could feel it, too.
I wish you knew that the thoughts in my brain sometimes have a wild way of their own. Sometimes they race and spiral at speeds unknown to man, turning over and examining every bad thing the human mind can think of. I picture the world exploding, my family dying from Ebola, what my cats' deaths will look like. I picture murders, sexual abuse, maggots wriggling in a trash bag. I picture people vomiting, people being run over by cars, babies crying, neglected in their cribs. And I don't have control, sometimes, over what my mind is showing me. Sometimes it's completely hellish, unwillingly thinking of things that are so horrible. But this cycling is part of my illness. And when I smile on the outside, and talk quickly, jumping from one subject to another, sometimes I'm not just passionate and excited. Sometimes I'm trying to stall the cycling thoughts, to erase them with good things. Sometimes I'm successful. Other times, I'm not.
But I know that the rest of the world doesn't picture these things. So I use my friends to vent to, and my writing to open the locked doors in my brain, so that the thoughts have a place to go. I do it because it keeps me from going completely mad. And I wish you knew that, that it's sometimes hard to be in my own brain. That I can't snap out of it easily, but I surely try.
I wish you knew of the dark winter days, the days that I don't get up til 5 pm, the days that the soft and black cushion of sleep is the only thing sustaining me. Because my dreams aren't like my thoughts. My dreams take me to better places. And being awake in the constant grey reminds me of the bad things in the world that I don't want to think about. I'm not deliberately ignoring you. I'm preserving myself so that I can be there for you. I want desperately to be a good friend, a good family member, a good human being. And most of the time, I succeed in attempting these things - most of the time, I can pass for any other member of society. But I can only do that when I have the quiet times. I can only do that when I allow my body to let it go.
But I know that if you are an extroverted, social person, you don't always understand the need for self-preservation. I know that you sometimes think I'm lazy, that I just need to change my mindset. I know you think my coping skills are rusty, that I'm just not trying hard enough. How I wish you knew how hard I try some days just to be the person I want to present to the world. I wish you knew how I quell the constant electric buzz of anxiety in my body at work on bad days, how I walk and pace to keep myself from vomiting, how my phobias and my obsessive cycling thoughts can ruin even the best experience unless I have a strict hold on myself.
Mostly, I wish you knew that no matter the mental illness we live with, we struggle with our shadows and demons all the time. That certain things can be triggering and it's not our fault. That we don't want attention and special treatment, that the media and the world and the general mindset of "suck it up" have created this space in which our minds and bodies don't belong. So we try, daily, to belong. To laugh weakly at jokes about "crazy people". To soothe and battle fears about the homeless man on the street. To break through the stigmas that have the world wanting us locked up, locked away. To prove that we are worthy people in society, worthy of respect, of consideration, of just plain friendliness.
I wish you knew these things -- because behind my smile, I'm desperately hoping that you don't see my illness. I don't want you to think I'm weak. I just want you to think I'm just like everyone else -- because I am.
I simply live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Emetophobia. And I'm one of millions who want you to know that mental illness isn't a choice.
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