Outside Looking In

Feeling weird today. Was it something I ate?
No. You’re just a filthy irredeemable piece of garbage. You’ve done something awful and now you’re feeling guilty.
What did I do?
Everything.
I’m trying my
best!
Yeah, right. What about that awful, violent daydream you had earlier?
That was just a random thought! Everyone has those! Plus, I didn’t even act on it! And you’re the one who made me worry about that in the first place!
That doesn’t matter. No one else has those thoughts but you. You’re sick and should be ashamed of yourself. You’re probably
a serial killer.
Would you shut up?!
You made eye contact with that woman for a half-second too long, she probably thinks you’re a creeper.
She had just said something to me, I was being polite!
You didn’t pick up that piece of litter outside, someone’s probably going to slip on it and break their neck, how will you live with yourself?
That’s insane! You don’t make any logical sense!
Since when has that ever stopped me?
On a bad day with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, this is pretty similar to my internal dialogue. To be clear, I’m not hearing voices. The back and forth is my talking to my OCD personified. But here I go now, obsessing over you not thinking I’m weird, so I should probably just move on.
My fight with mental illness is a relatively mild one. There are many people for whom the above dialogue (or one that is equally self-destructive) is a constant, debilitating reality. Though it does affect my life, I’m lucky enough that my disorder is quite manageable with a little treatment.
A fellow Wolverine, Mary Cisneros has fought with schizoaffective disorder for many years, which includes symptoms of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Those with this disorder are manic-depressive: off-the-wall one day, full of lead the next. All the while, they are also plagued with hallucinations: auditory, visual, or even both.
“It’s a terrifying thing to live with,” said Cisneros, “You just withdraw from everything. You don’t want to go out, you don’t want to talk to people. It’s really not that you don’t want to, it’s just that you can’t. It’s almost a physical thing. You say ‘mental illness’, but there’s some really physical symptoms that come with it. You want to drop out of life. You’re not you anymore. You’re hoping you get over it, but it just doesn’t happen.”
Adding insult to injury for those with mental health challenges of any degree, there is still a rampant stigma against mental illness in our society. This takes a couple of different forms: either people treat the patient with distrust or they refuse to believe that mental illness exists to begin with.
“They don’t see what your problem is,” said Cisneros, “So they just assume that there is no problem. These are not things that people want to have happen to them. They aren’t trying to feel sorry for themselves. It’s not something that I choose to do, or me being lazy, it was something that I had no control over. These things can put strong men in the gutter.”
The hardest thing about fighting mental illness, or pain of any kind, is that it’s very subjective. It’s impossible for me to inhabit your mind, a fly on the wall of your consciousness, and understand perfectly what you feel. I can try my best to empathize, but there will always be that barrier.
A couple years ago, a good friend and I were chatting, and the topic of mental illness came up. My buddy was convinced that psychological issues didn’t require medical intervention. “Apart from majorhandicaps,” he said, “I believe that anything mental can be cured by choosing to be happy.”
“Sometimes,” I said, “but that really depends on the person and the nature of the illness.”
My friend’s opinion was colored by the fact that he went through a bout of depression as a teen. His father gave him a pill and said that it would make him feel better. To his amazement, the pill worked, and very well. When it had worn off, he asked his father for another, to which his father informed him that the pill had been a placebo, a sugar pill. The power to be happy had been within him the entire time.
While I didn’t doubt that my friend’s experience had been true for him, my own experience, and that of many people I know and love, had been different. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a positive outlook.
But that positive outlook is fighting against a chemical imbalances, damaged brain structures or even genetic predispositions. It’s like pushing a boulder up a large hill. Trying harder definitely gives you an edge. But for some people, that boulder is much heavier, the hill more slippery, and their endurance wanes.
We have it within our power to mitigate most mental illnesses, whether it be through sheer compassion or medical intervention. While many psychological disturbances never go away completely, there are things to be done to lighten each person’s load. Perhaps a few lowlifes will take advantage of our compassion to get undeserved sympathy, but we owe it to the 1 in 4 American adults with mental illness to take their cries for help seriously.

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