Since I have several mental illnesses, my problem often feels very specific. I struggle with the unique combination of Bipolar Disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
How many people in my community have this combination of illnesses? Maybe only a few, and I will likely never run into them. Even online I haven’t run into anyone with the same set.
So my problem feels specific and unique. I feel like I will never meet someone who truly understands the nature of the problem I deal with every day.
Each of my conditions affect each other. The rapid cycling of my bipolar disorder triggers my anxiety disorders. My dissociative problems cause anxiety. High anxiety triggers dissociation and often depression. Mania triggers hallucinations and dissociation.
Everything intersects. I feel lost in this complicated web.
I feel like no one could truly understand how I feel.
There is a problem with this line of thinking. True, I will likely never meet anyone with the same group of illnesses. I will likely never meet anyone with the same type of mental illness cycle.
But if I shut myself away, I am not allowing others the chance to know me. I am blocking off potential connections to others. I am not allowing my story to reach others. Lastly, I am keeping myself from an opportunity to help others.
I find myself drawing back, figuring no one could ever understand what I’m going through. But then I remind myself of four things:
- There are people who want to learn my story. Maybe no one will be able to understand perfectly since they are not me, but if I keep to myself I am denying the opportunity for them to get to know me.
There are people out there who want to learn about me and my struggle with mental illness. There are people who care about me and honestly would like to understand what is going on with me.
I have to be patient with them, since it may take them a while to understand. But by separating myself from others I am missing out on an opportunity to educate someone about mental illness. Besides, I am missing out an opportunity to connect with someone who wants to know more about me.
2. There are people who relate to parts of my story. I can keep to myself, thinking no one can understand my particular version of mental illness. Or I can open my eyes and connect to people who understand part of my struggle.
I can talk to a friend who has experienced depression, or another one who has experienced panic attacks. They may not understand my whole story, but they can relate to part of it. So I’m not alone in my struggle. Support groups have always helped me with this.
3. We can never truly understand each other’s life. I tend to think I am different from other people due to my mental illnesses, and no one could understand me.
But then I take a step back and I see that everyone has their unique struggles. Everyone has their secret hurts and unique way of viewing the world. I don’t think we can ever completely understand anyone, since humans are complex.
Is my story that unusual or is it that I can describe it with a lot of diagnoses? What about the person in deep emotional or physical pain who has no words to describe it? We all are fighting our own invisible battles.
Maybe none of us can truly understand each other. But we do the best we can. We try to make meaning of our lives within all their complexity.
4. There are other people suffering who can relate to my pain. Maybe I’m the only one in my neighborhood with these five illnesses, but there are a lot of people who are suffering.
Often the holidays are difficult for me due to my mental illnesses. I feel alone.
Then I remind myself that others are struggling during the holidays. Some people are grieving. Some have a chronic illness. Some people just endured a break up or lost a job.
There are many others who are struggling. Reminding myself that I’m not alone in suffering helps me.
At a poetry workshop last December I wrote and read a poem about how I was struggling to get through the holiday. I wrote about how “the holidays are different/ when your inner world/ has become a battlefield.”
I thought no one would understand. But after I read the poem several people raised their hands and said that they related. I’m not the only one struggling. I may have different names and details for my struggle, but I’m not alone in feeling pain.
I think there is a danger for us in the mental health community that we start thinking about “us” versus “them.” We talk about how people with mental illness are different than other people. We talk about how “they” don’t understand us. We talk about “our” unique gifts and unique pain.
I want to encourage all of you that maybe we are not so different from everybody else. Reach out to others. Share your stories. Allow people to open their hearts to you.
Maybe the antidote for feeling alone with our mental illnesses is extending a hand to someone else who is suffering in a different way.