How we choose to approach fellow humans in the throes of mental illness can either help alleviate symptoms or exacerbate them.
While being faced with someone’s invisible illness often disarms us and makes us feel helpless, what we often forget is that our reactions always have an impact.
Looking the other way and pretending all is well can erase a fellow human’s pain, further isolating them. Laughing and declaring it’s all in their head adds humiliation that can further erode one’s sense of self and lead to feeling lesser than, worthless even.
But pointing the finger and blaming those in pain for lacking the emotional, mental, and physical wherewithal to deal with life is worse. It implies the patient is in control of their condition and has thus chosen malingering over facing the demands of daily life. It implies they’re lazy, not sick; it implies they’re moochers, not people who desperately need help.
Disdain and judgment can lead to an all-pervading sense of abandonment, especially when it comes from family. When those we trust to love us unconditionally withhold love on the grounds that we don’t measure up to what they expect of us, alienation happens.
If our own reject us then who will ever accept us, if anyone?
I spent five years convinced mental illness has made me unfit for life.
On an intellectual level, I knew this state of affairs was unlikely to be permanent as even chronic depression does lift at times. But on an emotional level, I was utterly bereft and in constant, unbearable pain without the linguistic wherewithal to articulate it.
I very much doubt it would have helped anyway.
Because I was so thoroughly incapacitated by major depressive disorder, I couldn’t function as a worker, as a wife, or as a community member. I could no longer think so I could no longer write or practice my profession, which was entirely word-dependent. This catapulted my household into hardship for years, causing almost immediate resentment at home.
That my husband held me in such low regard shocked me. Until then, I had no idea love could be transactional, some kind of business deal both parties always need to be closing.
Because there was never enough money to cover basic expenses, I couldn’t access the therapy that would have helped me get back on feet quicker. I’ve never not had insurance but the co-pays were and remain beyond our budget.
Had the atmosphere at home been compassionate and supportive, I doubt I’d have ended up losing such a big chunk of my life. But it wasn’t so I retreated further into my own head and detached from my marriage to try and contain the additional pain lovelessness caused. The only respite in sight was death but I stopped short of taking my own life when I realized my husband would never be able to afford a funeral.
Instead I became invisible in my own home, a burden that sometimes wasn’t worth speaking to or acknowledging for up to ten days at a time.
No human warmth. No conversation. No sympathy.
Only the coldness of silence.
Although I was neither thrown out on the street nor forced into a divorce, my marriage collapsed regardless.
Thankfully, my two cats never left my side, those two little purring satellites of love tethered me to life and reminded me daily to keep going.
Expecting others to fix us is unreasonable.
I never did and still don’t; instead, I’ve been working hard to fix as much as I can myself for over a year now and hope to start therapy the moment I get back into the EU health care system.
Nevertheless, I cannot parse the absence of fellow feeling, of human warmth, or of curiosity about the war raging in my head from the person who vowed to be my partner in sickness and in health. More than likely, I never will and it no longer matters; I can’t let it matter lest the past should hinder the present, which is still fragile.
Compassion would have gone a long way toward stalling the progression of an illness that made me forget all that made me me. Communication, meanwhile, would have reminded me I was still a human in the world. Instead, I became this amorphous and mostly silent blob of pain that seemed to be in the way of someone else’s self-actualization and joy.
The guilt I experienced for ruining someone else’s life was as intense as it was destructive; it took hold and I haven’t managed to shed it completely yet. While I understand it’s both misplaced and inappropriate, it is undeniable my illness also made my husband suffer. It would be remiss and self-centered of me not to acknowledge this.
As I was raised by a chronic depressive single mom, I only know too well the impact mental illness can have on those closest to us. Several decades later, she and I are only beginning to build a mutually supportive relationship and we’ll be building it until the end of our days.
Even though my childhood was marred by domestic abuse, I never saw my mother as anything other than a fellow human in pain, no matter how much she hurt me.
But as a child, I didn’t have the life experience, critical distance, or tools to do much for her even though I always tried, instinctively.
Because I come from a culture that teaches us from birth we all have a duty of care toward one another, I wasn’t prepared for America.
I had been coming to the US for years, sometimes even for work, but I had never stayed for longer than 90 days before I immigrated in 2013.
I wasn’t prepared for how hardened many Americans are to the suffering of others, how disconnected from peers, too. If individualism and capitalism are constant threats to basic human decency, we can all do our part to reverse this.
Raising awareness about the reality of mental illness is key to not leaving anyone behind; we still have a long way to go and much work to do until we get there.
Although less prevalent, this exclusionary attitude is also present in other cultures, even in the EU. I do believe nurture is always to blame here, never nature.
For I do not accept any human is inherently bad or malicious; we’re simply misguided, oblivious, and too often afraid of the unknown. Recoiling in front of something unfamiliar is a natural reaction, ditto fight or flight as self-preservation is a reflex after all.
And chronic mental illness can be scary to others, even after we manage to tame it. In my case, I’ve come a long way in the last year but anxiety still manifests as a need to protect those I love from the depressive fallout whenever my mental health takes a nosedive.
I haven’t yet lost the habit of apologizing for being awkward and clumsy as a result of having a brain that works a little differently. And I’m still prone to an all-consuming fear of abandonment that calls for a little extra handholding, a little extra reassurance at times.
To help others help me, I strive to communicate as effectively as possible, something that can be hit and miss depending on how distraught I am.
Compassion is innate but we sometimes lose it alongside our natural inquisitiveness as we leave childhood behind. We can remedy this by being curious about those who aren’t us, going toward them, and offering to listen if they need to talk.
A few neutral questions can go a long way toward conveying our concern in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental way.
A heartfelt “How can I help?” is always a good start even if the mentally ill person is likely to turn you down if a rapport of trust hasn’t been established yet.
Until then, reminding someone they are enough can boost their ailing self-esteem in innumerable, tiny ways. You may not see it, you may not feel it but I can guarantee you that whoever hears those words will greatly benefit from them.
Compassion isn’t a luxury, it’s a human necessity.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.