It’s like that feeling you get when you’ve almost rear ended someone in traffic, your whole body is tense and vibrating at the same time. Completely out of your control. Leaving the house to check the mail seems like solving world peace. One day you awake two hours before the alarm, ready and willing to tackle the world full of energy that seems endless. Being on full alert all the time, suspecting everyone around you is planning how to do you harm. Looking over your shoulder as you walk down each aisle, sweating like its thirty degrees and you’re still wearing your winter parka.
These are examples of how I’ve described my life with mental illness to my family and friends. The ‘normal’ people in my life who don’t quite understand what it feels like to be me on a day to day basis. Now those with mental illness may relate, or may have completely separate experiences to mine. The one thing we will all have in common is a difficulty explaining our state of mind, of being, to another.
There is no simple way to explain an experience because everyone has their own. That doesn’t mean however that we can’t try, and those in supporting roles have to live what we live to understand. You may have never experienced a panic attack, akin to a near death experience, but you’ve likely almost been in an accident that has similar feelings. Feelings that are hard to describe, but with some thought and reflection are easy enough to understand.
To all the wonderful support people out there I wish to offer my many thanks for your assistance and dedication to someone in your life who lives with mental illness. Your support is appreciated, even if we can’t say so. Your dedication to our wellbeing is noticed even if you don’t feel recognized. You matter, and although it can be trying at times, what you do matters more than you can imagine.
Below are some things to keep in mind when supporting those in your life living with mental illness. A list I hope provides some direction for anyone who might be afraid to ask what they should do, who feels like they should just have all the answers to the mental illness test.
We already know we’re suffering
This is a personal pet peeve of mine. People who say “she suffers from mental illness”. We already know we’re suffering, and when we hear you tell others that we are suffering it hurts. Deep down, in gut wrenching ways it hurts. Personal experience tells me that there have been countless days when I would give up anything to feel better, to be better.
There is a stigma attached to mental illness so when you use the term suffering to describe me, I feel any hope of having a “normal” interaction with you, or anyone else for that matter, just jumped out the window.
I live with mental illness. Just like I live with having hazel eyes and an overbite. This is a part of me that may make parts of my life more difficult, but it does not define me. I’m open about my diagnosis, but the way people describe me as being just my illness makes my stomach hurt.
Please consider how you would feel, similar to a rumour of you behind your back, before you go around forcing us to wear the suffering sign for the world to see.
You don’t have all the answers
Mental illness is still in its infancy of discovery if you ask me. Finally its starting to get the acknowledgement and attention it deserves, but to often people think they have to have all the answers. Simply put, you don’t. We don’t either.
This is okay. Repeat after me “I don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay”. If you don’t have the answers ask. We live in the age of technology, access to information is at your fingertips when you want it. Real medical information on illness and medications. Legitimate studies on mental health as it relates to diet and exercise. Blogs and forums just like this one that discuss life in all it’s various forms, that encourage others to educate themselves and join the conversation. The world can be a lonely place until you reach out and see that others have shared your experience.
Ask the person in your life how you can support them. Different people in my life provide different supports. Some I would prefer to talk to, knowing that they aren’t the person who can help drag me out of bed and into the shower during a bad stretch. Others offer to bring things to me during those bad stretches, picking up a few things from the grocery store for me. I may not be able to get out of bed some days but I still need toilet paper. I also have friends who are supportive of me on the good days, the people I trust to have my back and understand why I pop up in their life only once in a while for a night out of fun.
We may not be able to tell you what you can do in the moment, but pay attention and be receptive that support comes in many forms. Sometimes just sitting in the same room and watching a silly movie means the world that day.
We don’t want to live our life on the sidelines
While I can’t speak for everyone, there has been very very few moments in my life where I wanted to feel miserable and numb all the time. I’ve never wanted to just survive in my life. There have been moments where I just didn’t want to live anymore, but mostly I’ve always had a small flame hiding somewhere deep down inside that wanted to be just like everyone else. Understood, accepted, active and involved. Envious of those people who had their shit together, who could consistently be happy and engaged in their lives.
Here’s the catch. We want to live our lives like everyone else, we want to be engaged and participate. We also don’t want to be a burden, dragging everyone else into our pit of despair. For someone like me who swings from great days (mania) to dark days (severe depression), it can be hard for those in my life to understand how I was the life of the party last week and won’t return calls or texts this week.
Like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, keep inviting us along. Don’t give up hope on us just yet. I won’t make promises that we will say yes, that we will show up showered and ready, that we will have the energy to participate. But I can tell you that depression is one of the most isolating experiences I’ve ever had in my life. It was those people who didn’t give up on me that kept me in touch with life even if it was far from my reach.
When to get help
Living with mental illness is the art of wearing many masks. Many will describe it as life behind the smile. The eyes that if one looks closely are haunting and lonely. I lied to myself, and everyone in my life, for years about the severity of my illness. I hid behind smart outfits and perfectionist level grooming. Some days it was real and I wanted to look as confident as I felt. Truthfully most days it was war paint, a way for me to convey to the world that everything was fine even if I was completely numb on the inside.
Be cautious that you may not be privy to the worst of it. That no matter how close you may be, or how much you may love someone they may still be hiding from you and perhaps even themselves. I can’t tell you how to recognize someone in hiding, most of us use a different language that many won’t notice. I’ve heard depression compared to snow blanketing everything into something unrecognizable, or being under water unable to breathe.
The answer to when to get help is anytime you think “I might need some help here”. Start with getting help for yourself, ask questions and learn ways you can be supportive of your loved one without losing yourself in the process. Discover tips on how to be supportive while still planting seeds that your loved one might need more support than you can offer, real and professional help. Offer to go with them to the doctor. Help make a list of changes you notice. Little things to start the ball rolling and make the experience less isolating.
Asking for help is a show of strength, recognizing your reality and taking action instead of soldiering through pretending the room isn’t on fire. Being supportive doesn’t mean being everything for one person, it doesn’t mean having all the answers, and it certainly doesn’t mean losing yourself in the process. Being supportive is showing love, kindness and respect. Caring for those who are unable to care for themselves at this moment in time. It’s what we all want when we can’t care for ourselves, no matter what form it takes.
Thanks for your support.
Are you a supporter in life, if so what do you find works well? What is the most challenging for you in this unexpected role? Are you someone with Mental Illness, how do you describe it to others? Please share your experiences below in the comments, and if you like what you’re read here today please don’t forget to like and follow for regular posts.