Mental illness- what it’s like and what can be done.
What is it like to be vulnerable? What does it take to open up about a personal struggle?
It’s not the most pleasant feeling, at first. It certainly doesn’t get better if the response isn’t comforting or empathetic.
Living with a mental illness can be exhausting; physically and mentally. Trapped in a cage, the pain can be so disorienting that a person involuntarily locks the gate from the inside and tosses away the keys. Believe it or not, it happens. So, the question is, is it their fault?
No. A thousand times NO.
What is it like to live with a mental illness?
There are several misconceptions about mental illnesses where depression is reduced to merely a feeling of ‘sadness’, and anxiety is simply a state of ‘worry’. There are a lot of other misleading facts out there that need to be corrected. For starters, ‘sadness’ despite being a powerful emotion, doesn’t encompass the severity of depression. Depression includes guilt, a lot of guilt. There is frustration, and the person is easily irritated. Then there is maddening loneliness. While depressed, a person has a lot of intrusive thoughts, including ones like harm- intentional self-harm, or fear of harm to a loved one. Self-harm is a very delicate matter, which if not addressed at the right time, and with adequate sensitivity, can lead to serious consequences. Depression is sometimes accompanied by anxiety.
Anxiety itself isn’t just being ‘worried’ or feeling ‘nervous’. It’s about being a 100% sure of reaching insanity, or envisioning death. It includes compulsive behaviour like biting the inside of the cheek, digging nails into the skin, biting nails, pulling hair, or sometimes even repeating a single task over and over again like checking if the door is locked or walking around in a room in circles trying to get something done but not actually doing it. Like depression, anxiety too brings many intrusive thoughts. It has physical symptoms like palpitations, shaking, feeling numb, and so many others. Then there are anxiety attacks which are incredibly painful to get through.
Like I said earlier, living with a mental illness can be exhausting, physically and emotionally; you can now see why. Hence, there is a loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed by the person. This is the reason it is so difficult to complete simple tasks like taking a shower, eating a meal, or going grocery shopping. Those who are suffering need to know that it is okay to feel what they’re feeling, and know it is understood that all of this isn’t intentional, and that they will heal.
What can you do for a person going through this?
Listen. Really listen. Listen without judgement. Often times, while hearing out a person, we tend to form an opinion real quick, and try to force it down on them. Don’t. The person in front of you is vulnerable, and has been beating themselves up already, therefore, your opinion is not welcome at this point.
Don’t make it about you. Perhaps, you’ve been through something similar or are going through it, currently. But don’t respond to their confession with an ‘I’ve been there too’. Well, not just yet. It is crucial to first let them truly open up. Give them a chance to finally address what they’ve been running from. Let them feel valid. Eventually, if they need your advice, that’s when you can step in and assure them that they can trust you because you’ve been through something similar.
Never say ‘it’s all in your head’. Just don’t. By saying that, you’re instantly disregarding all the pain that person is suffering from. Since the illness has taken over their whole life, you saying it’s just in their head, makes them feel that their entire existence is invalid. Eventually, this just makes them feel guilty. Being constantly told that it’s not a big deal, when it’s actually breaking them down, confuses them and leads them into thinking that it is in fact, their fault. They feel they’re simply exaggerating, or overthinking and begin to stick all these labels on themselves. They begin to spiral down further. What you say is of great significance, choose your words wisely.
Persons who are suffering have their walls up; break them down, softly. Give them what they need- love, assurance, empathy. Your compassion can heal them. Whether their body is marked with self-harm scars, or you can visibly see a difference in their weight, loss or gain, do not ‘point out their mistake’. Be gentle. Let them know that their behaviour is understandable considering the pain they’re suffering, and then, help them overcome it. Realize that no one chooses to harm themselves on purpose.
The aim while writing my debut book, ‘The Fire You Don’t See,’ was to provide an insight into the lives of people affected by mental illness, and show that healing is possible with a little bit of compassion, and patience. There is strength in togetherness. The two protagonists, despite being damaged themselves, manage to fill in each other’s missing pieces and heal one another’s wounds. Their journey is realistic, and I hope the readers find comfort in the fact that such a reality is possible.
Mental illness can be deceptive, giving an illusion of falling skies and dying stars. But the presence of a trusted someone during the person’s troubled hours can make such a difference, and possibly, save their life as well. It is important to open up, and to confide. Making a person feel secure enough to embrace their vulnerability, is crucial.
If you’re hurting, reach out to whoever you can; someone, somewhere, will understand.
Or if someone who is hurting has reached out to you, don’t ignore their plea for help. Take ten more steps towards them in comparison to the one step they took towards you. You have the power to better someone’s life.