Before going into more detail I first want to talk about mental illness and what it means to live with mental illness. Truthfully, I know the statistics and could look more up and share all of that, but for this blog I want to be more raw and talk about what mental illness feels like and might look, sound, and feel like in people around you.
While there are the medical definitions of what constitutes mental illness (whether that be depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.), often times we lack descriptions on what it looks and feels like to those who are affected.
Having been on both sides of the fence, first observing what mental illness can look like while I am feeling mentally healthy and now as someone experiencing depression and anxiety first hand, I can tell you that though there are obvious signs, things are not as black and white as they seem.
As a friend, family member, partner, or coworker, you usually can tell when something is off with someone close to you or whom you interact with regularly. The blaring red flags are they seem down, they no longer want to do things they used to be interested in with no real reason behind that, they struggle to find motivation or purpose in their activities/work, they basically slowly begin to shut themselves off from the world. Yes, yes, these are all true and I have felt all these in my depression. But it is hard to navigate as the one not affected though because the topic is so sensitive and you don’t want to seem accusing; you merely want to show the person suffering you care. It is a difficult territory to navigate when you visibly see someone struggling.
However, it is worth noting that sometimes the person who smiles at you everyday when you walk in the office, the one who is quick to respond in the group chat among friends, the person who somehow always shows up to your events (even if only for an hour), can be suffering just as much as those who wear it noticeably.
Personally, when I began to feel depressed, I attributed it to work and life stress for about three months. Three whole months of telling myself and everyone around me that there was just a lot happening and that’s why I was antisocial, restrained, and ultimately not acting like myself. Then once I realized what was happening, I still felt like it was not acceptable to just come right out and tell people “sorry, getting out of bed right now to go to your birthday dinner that is 30 minutes away is just too much for me to physically and mentally conquer right now.” I struggled with this mightily. In future posts, I will get into how it felt to finally tell people, what I learned about opening up, and how they reacted. I will also do my best to explain how I still managed to do some of these activities.
Experiencing all this for myself has opened my eyes to everything that people can be going through in life without others knowing. I’m sure many of you have seen of heard the quote “You never know what battles others are fighting, so be kind always” (or something to that affect!), but it is true. I know at my work nobody knows what I am going through because it is not an “appropriate” workplace topic. Well, let’s be fair here, I also do not know what others are going through either, potentially for the same reason. Maybe someone is dealing with infertility issues or another has a family member recovering from addiction or WHO EVEN KNOWS what else. It has made me be kinder to others, even though sometimes even mustering ‘hello’ can be hard for me. At the very least, it has made me less judgmental and not to be so quick to make assumptions. I now give every person the benefit of the doubt for their behavior, even though it may not always be warranted…but maybe it is?
In summary, living with mental illness is not always the dark, dramatic picture we always think it is. Sometimes it’s a bright sky where some clouds come in to cover the sunshine that is trying to peek through. I say this not to discount those moments where it can be dark with those extreme scenarios, but to bring awareness to the fact that it is more, much more, than just those scenarios. Many times, those scenarios only happen because these “non-extreme” warning signs are ignored. Hopefully, we can admit firstly to ourselves if we are experiencing these warning signs, however subtle they may seem. This will be a difficult, but necessary, moment in order to try to help yourself in this journey. And if someone you know seems to be acting unlike themselves, just reassure them you are there to listen to anything whenever, if ever, they are ready to talk about it. Pressuring them will not make them more likely to tell you, but letting them do so on their terms will make it easier for them to open up.