When mental illness is a major part of your life, sometimes it’s necessary to explain strange behavior or dropping off the face of the map.

When it’s someone you don’t know very well, you may just go with, “I wasn’t feeling well.” But when it’s someone you’re close to, you may want to vent a little or provide a better explanation. You’re supportive when they’re ill, so they’ll support you, you think.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way.

419733435_840aa45b0e_stressThe other day, I was explaining to a friend how my mental illness made a situation that would cause anyone a normal amount of stress way worse, and she interrupted me. “You know everyone deals with that, right? That’s not just a mental illness thing.”

Well yes, everyone does deal with stress. Everyone does deal with not liking their job. Everyone deals with most symptoms of mental illness.

The difference between someone who is mentally healthy and someone who is mentally ill is not the fact that symptoms arise, but the degree to which they affect your life.

Take OCD. Everyone checks their locks. But if you’re 15 minutes late for work every day because you check your lock in three clusters of three, get down to your car, return to your door, check it three times three again, get down to your car, but now you have to check it one more time because three is three, that’s not something “everyone deals with.” Or if you’re late because you have to keep circling the block in case you hit someone and didn’t notice, that’s not something “everyone deals with.” If you can’t eat certain foods because you worry they’re contaminated beyond reason, that’s not something “everyone deals with.”

Everyone has little cleaning ticks sometimes. This is not “your OCD coming out.” It’s OCD if you clean every day with caustic chemicals to the point that the skin on your hands peels due to chemical burns and you’re crying into your toilet because after three hours and half-a-jug of bleach, it’s still not clean enough.

Everyone worries about the future. That’s not necessarily OCD. If you are spending every waking hour for months at a time worried that you are going to do something terrible, planning out how to avoid doing that terrible thing, planning out how you’re going to stay out of prison if you do that thing by accident, and unable to forgive yourself for this terrible thing you haven’t done because you’re pretty sure you will do it eventually even though you don’t want to, that’s OCD.

Everyone gets stressed out by their job at times. Mentally healthy people are not so relentlessly, permanently stressed by their job that just the thought of going to work makes them contemplate suicide.

Everyone has mood swings. People with bipolar disorder sometimes feel so good they think they’ve been chosen by God for a special mission; or so angry they want to scream endlessly and break windows because someone is playing music on the bus; or so depressed and empty life seems entirely pointless and they don’t work for weeks, falling behind on bills; or so paranoid they begin writing down the license plates of every white car they see to prove the drivers are following them. (I’ve done all of these.)

Having that difference of degrees minimized by friends or family, especially people who have struggled with their own mental illness  and who should understand, is painful, because it’s hard to accept that you have a mental illness. It’s hard to accept that you need to be on medication and in therapy just to be mentally stable.

You want to believe that it was a mistake, that you don’t really have these illnesses, that maybe you exaggerated or faked your symptoms, and if you just stop going to the doctor and taking your pills, you’ll be fine. So you do, and you end up in a much bigger mess, completely overwhelmed, and unable to put things back together when you come out on the other side.

“Everyone goes through that,” or “Oh, I get a little OCD sometimes too!” or “Everyone has bad moods sometimes” are just not helpful things to say to someone with a mental illness. We already know that everyone goes through these things. What makes us mentally ill is that we go through them to an unhealthy, potentially life-ruining extreme.

But what’s the diplomatic way to tell someone to shut up? Especially when they honestly think they’re being comforting?

My solution right now? Just stop talking about mental illness with the people who do this. But it makes it hard when mental illness still has such an enormous effect on my daily life, and might always. How do I not mention something that’s always there, especially when someone wants to know why I’ve dropped off the map for six weeks?


Photo by rick