There’s a misconception among the neurotypical community about mental illness that needs to be addressed. Actually there’s a bunch of em. But today I want to address one in particular. Mental illness is an invisible ailment, one seen only in the quirks and tics and sometimes outbursts of those afflicted. It isn’t like cancer where you lose your hair, can’t keep anything down and generally look and feel like walking death because the treatment is almost as bad as the disease. It isn’t like a broken limb with it’s attendant case or cut or burn with the stitches, bandages ,debridement treatments and scars that are part of those afflictions. Mental illness happens in the emotions and the biochemistry and as such there isn’t much in the way of tangible manifestation of, for lack of a better expression, the injury.
Because what we’re dealing with is purely an emotional issue, or at least an issue that expresses itself through the emotions people who don’t have it think they’re on the same wavelength as us because they have emotionally rough days too. No. You’re not. Not even fucking close and kindly don’t insult us by pretending you are.
Everyone has emotional bad times. It’s part of the human condition and there’s no avoiding it. The difference is that for an NT, they are less intense, less frequent and generally have some logical reason behind them. For the mentally ill they are pervasive, often lasting days or weeks at a stretch. They hit with the force of a freight train driven by someone actively hunting you over a personal grudge involving their mom and a bottle of roofies. And they very seldom have a rational basis.
An NT gets scared. Maybe they have a close call crossing the street or their dinner catches fire. Maybe they have a bad interaction with their boss and they get worried about the security of their position.
A mentally ill person has an anxiety attack. They freak out literally over nothing. A story I share in my book, “What’s Your Superpower?” talks about how I once had a panic attack because my foster mom texted me telling me she couldn’t attend my birthday party but we’d talk when she dropped off presents and cake. Presents and cake and I spent 45 minutes -most of it up on a ladder- unable to breathe and pretty sure I was going to vomit and/or pass out. Completely irrational but completely real. And while I knew intellectually I probably wasn’t gonna die it sure as shit felt like I was at the time.
I try to see the best in people. Given the savagery of my childhood you’d think I wouldn’t . But I do. Consequently I like to imagine that people who tell the mentally ill they know just how we feel when they themselves are not mentally ill are doing so in an attempt to empathize and make us feel less alone in our struggle. Thank you. And please stop it, right now.
When you tell a mentally ill person that you understand our struggle what you’re really doing is trivializing it. You get scared and move on with your day. We’re convinced we’re gonna fucking die and the effort of getting our feet back under us is exhausting. You think that because our problem is emotional in nature and you have emotions that seem similar what we both go through is the same and that is, at best, an oversimiplification.
This problem runs across the whole spectrum. Fear, anger, sadness, you name it. If there’s a negative emotional state, a person with PTSD is likely to feel it at a level that is several orders of magnitude greater than what their NT friends and relative are. It’s overwhelming. It swamps us under. We can’t breathe or sleep or see straight. It’s often all we can do to stop from lashing out, either physically or emotionally.
Imagine the most whatever you’ve ever been. The most sad. The most afraid. The most angry. Remember how all-encompassing it was. How it felt like there literally never had been and never would be anything but that emotion. Remember how you felt like you were drowning or couldn’t rest until you’d murdered the shit out of whatever it was that had you feeling the way you did. Remember the effort it took to pull yourself back from that place and the shame you likely felt if, in the course of doing so you were cruel or destructive.
Does the time you were sad at the sight of something touching you saw online compare to the death of your favorite loved one? Does the irritation of your barrista screwing up your coffee order compare to the rage when you found out a friend had been raped ? What about scared? Remember that time you didn’t hear someone coming up behind you only to turn around and hey presto, there they were? Is that the same as the time you woke up to find the house on fire or when that drunk ran you off the road and your airbags deployed? The answer to all of these is of course not and a person would be a fool to think they did.
Now imagine those same experiences repeated multiple times a day, every day for months and years on end. Don’t you think you’d get a bit worn down? And wouldn’t you find yourself ever so slightly short on patience with those who compared their screwed up coffee order to your raped friend? Well that’s our life folks. Day after endless, struggle-filled day, sometimes for years at a time. Me, I’m into my third decade with this shit. It’s gotten easier but that’s because human beings can get used to anything that doesn’t kill us. But it’s still a trial and it still doesn’t help to have my idiot boss compare her restless night with week of screaming night terrors.
So please, don’t imagine that you’re going through what we are. You’re not. Don’t imagine that your “Hey Fred I didn’t see you there” is the same as our “The HOUSE is ON FIRE! RUN!” .
If you want to help it’s simple. Practice these words. “I can’t pretend to know what you’re going through but I’m here if you need me.” . That’s it. Just that. Nothing huge. Nothing complex. “You’re not alone, even if I don’t get it.” . Be a friend. Be a companion. A friendly ear and the occasional strong shoulder for us to lean on. You don’t have to feel what we’re feeling to share the road with us. You just have to be there. Liking us. Loving us if that’s how you feel. Helping us to our feet when we stumble, having our backs when the ignorant and hostile give us grief and above all, not judging us.
You may imagine that that isn’t really help because it’s so simple and obvious and that help with a complex problem like mental illness but itself be complex to truly be effective but that isn’t true. Sometimes the simple solutions are the best ones. Look at a button. Once upon a time, the problem of how to close an article of clothing to keep it from falling off or keep the wind and the wet out must have seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.
Then somebody got the idea of the button. A hole, an overlap, a bit of whatever attached to the overlapped part that can fir through the hole. And now here we are, millennia later with buttons so ubiquitous most of us don’t give them a second’s thought. Until we lose one, at which point we realize just how important the are. It’s the same thing. You don’t have to be our clothing factory with all its complex machinery and intricate moving parts. Just be the button. You’ll be appreciated for your presence and missed in your absence, probably more than you ever realize.
Have a great day everyone. See you next week.