Monday, December 2, 2013

What It Means To Be Mentally Ill

Before I start on this post I want to take the time to thank all the people who read my first post and who spoke with me about it. I can't overstate how I appreciate the support and how it motivates me to continue writing this.

Additionally, if anyone has any questions, additions or critiques on the content of the blog, I strongly encourage them to comment or message me about it. In discussing mental illness, communication is paramount, and I don't pretend to know all the answers. There are always things for me to learn, better ways to present my points, and parts of the dialogue which others can contribute to better than myself, and if anyone thinks they can help me in those respects, I welcome it.

In my first post I introduced myself and the nature of this blog and why I feel the need to talk about mental illness. In this post, I seek to outline just what it means to be mentally ill in this day and age.

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To be mentally ill is to hurt. Often and without knowing why. We find our thoughts and feelings warped beyond our control, and often it seems like the most we can do is suffer through it. We are hurt not only in the thoughts and emotions the mental illness brings us, but in the actions we do as a result of it, and the regrets we feel in their aftermath. We are hurt in how our actions affect others, and in how we see our social circle shrink the worse we get.

My depression intensified in high school. There were days I would wake up with no motivation to go to school, to do things I enjoy, or even to eat. But I had a friend then. To this day I maintain it is one of the best friendships I ever had. After a time I began to worry about the friendship, to obsess about it. I began to overanalyze everything I did, everything I said to my friend, and worried that with the slightest mistake our relationship would fall apart. I would not only worry about it, but spread my worries to the other person, ask them if I was doing something wrong, apologize for things they hadn't noticed or hadn't bothered them, and do these things again and again and again until eventually it became too exhausting for the other person to handle and they pulled away. As they pulled away I became more upset, and at the same time thought I could still be able to salvage it if I just kept doing what I had been doing before, trying to talk to them, trying to apologize for things I'd done which never bothered them in the first place, and every time I did it I pushed them further and further away. Now they do not respond to me when I try to contact them, and I don't blame them. I still hurt over it.

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I'm better now than I was in high school, and I intend to continue to get better. But it is not easygoing, and I suspect it will never entirely be. Mental illness is not like other sicknesses, which have concrete physical cause and solution. To be mentally ill is to face a sickness which one cannot see or touch. It is a condition which takes place only in the ambiguous corners of the brain and mind and the even more ambiguous locations where they intersect. With mental illness, those untrained in its workings are left constantly wondering to what extent the actions they do, the thoughts they have, the emotions they feel are caused by the illness or are truly their own.

For the longest time, I was not aware of even the vaguest notions of this division between the illness and the self. When I had depressive episodes, I would be upset and frustrated and would have no idea why, and so I came up with reasons of my own. I thought I was weak, that I was selfish for being so upset, even though I had no reason to be. People told me that no one but yourself can make you happy or sad, so I extrapolated that it was my fault for feeling so awful, and that only made me feel worse. I became self-loathing, and with the self-loathing I felt worthless, and with the feeling of worthlessness I wondered why I kept going at all.

Later, as my treatment helped me become more aware of my mental illness, I was able to identify with some level of success when and how my mental illness was affecting me. When I became upset, when I felt despair about my future and my skills and my ability to ever feel happy again, I recognized that I was suffering from a depressive episode, and that it would go away with medication, with a change of scenery, or simply the passage of time. I learned to separate my mental illness from who I was. Many people do not know how to do that. Worse, their friends and loved ones do not either. The mentally ill can be blamed for things that are not their fault, and others may be hurt or frustrated by the seemingly unreasonable and distressing actions the person exhibits.

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Because of this, to be mentally ill is to be a pariah. The mentally ill face stigmatization borne from the collective ignorance of a society which does not understand them. They are stereotyped, often paradoxically, as prone to violence while also being too weak to exercise control over their own minds; as having nothing to contribute to society and as having untapped creative potential, as is the case for many artists whose mental illnesses have been romanticized as integral to their artistic success.

The prejudice against the mentally ill is helped in no small part by media representations of mental illness, which often place the mentally ill on the outskirts of society, be it as criminals or eccentric geniuses or inpatients suffering from the most extreme of cases. To describe in sufficient detail the extent of these representations is beyond the scope of this blog, though later on I intend to analyze a few films and the stereotypes they reinforce about the mentally ill.

The prejudice against the mentally ill not only impedes our comfort in society, but makes us more reluctant to seek treatment. We internalize the stereotypes, and believe if we admit we are mentally ill (say, by going to therapy or purchasing medication) we admit to ourselves that we are abnormal, broken, and dysfunctional. As a result, many people refuse to seek treatment, and their condition worsens. When the prospect of taking medication first came to me, I did not want to take it, in part because of those stereotypes. I feared being outcast more than I already was, and I feared the medication changing me in some fundamental way. Mainly, I feared admitting to myself that I was broken, and that my own will was not enough to save me. In the end, I accepted treatment and my control over my mental illness was improved because of it. It's not hard to think of what might have happened had I not accepted treatment.

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To be mentally ill is to be alone. Seemingly.

When faced with such internal struggles as mental illness, and faced with the pressures of society to keep such struggles hidden it is often easy to believe there is no one who can help you but yourself. This is not true. There are whole communities of people who want to help you. Advocacy groups, support groups, even friends and family who have struggled with such issues but, like ourselves, do not talk about it

And even your loved ones who have not experienced it, who do not know what your mental illness entails, want so very much to help you, they just need to know what they can do. They need to know how to tell between what is yourself and what is the mental illness. They need to know of the methods you use to treat yourself, and when they should step forward and when they should give you space.

But to do these things, we need to talk about mental illness, and that is perhaps the most difficult thing to do. When faced with a society that encourages us to hide our mental illness, it is the hardest thing to go against the grain. But it can be done, and it needs to be done, if the status of the mentally ill, of each of us, in society is to be improved.

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