Sometimes if I’m home from work because my illness has decided to bite me on the behind, sometimes I belittle my need to be home because there is “nothing physically wrong with me” meaning, I don’t have a cold or a flu or leprosy or something. My problem is mental, that’s why they call it mental illness.
So I’m thinking about that just now. The phrase “nothing physically wrong with me” makes me feel weak, like I’ve failed at living, like my illness is somehow less legitimate. But what does mental illness mean?
It means that something in my brain went sproing. I don’t know what it was and really neither do doctors. There are theories but it remains a mystery.
Here’s what I do know; whatever it is that went wrong, a synapse went haywire, not enough/too much serotonin, genetics, a snowman with his hat off, whatever it is it is located in my brain.
Now, I’m no doctor but I am relatively sure my brain is in fact part of my physical being, my overall body and innards. If that is indeed the case then this illness is physical. Whatever the mechanism it takes place in my brain and is physical. Just like a cold or a flu or leprosy or something.
So, I will no longer say this to myself; “nothing physically wrong with me.”
I cannot just “change my gladitude!” and magically erase the disease. I cannot do a few jumping jacks and suddenly all is well. Mental illness, much of the time, simply doesn’t work like that.
To those who give this advice, frequently with a wagging finger or a degree of disdain, try this.
Break your arm.
Do not seek medical help.
Smile and do a jumping jack until it’s all better.
Did your arm mend?
That is what we are being told to do. We are being told to shake it off, stop whining, and just get back to work.
This is my counter proposal, my recommendation of what to say.
You cannot “fix” this as much as you’d like to.
Be there. Listen. Know that this person is in pain, real, physical pain. Encourage them, gently, to get help, there is help for them. Go with them to the doctor.
This is a physical disease. My brain is my body. My disease is real, my pain is real.
Please don’t judge. Please don’t belittle. Please don’t expect people to mend their own broken arm.