Mental illness can be defined with just seven words. Be careful, because the words you choose will speak for you.
“When you miss work because of surgery, you get flowers and casseroles. When you are depressed and can’t come to work, you are seen as lazy and weak and no one knows how to respond.”
I live with depression, but my diagnosis is not who I am. You and I are much greater than any illness or diagnosis that we may have received. How we talk about about mental illness can have a huge impact our entire life.
Recently I experienced a resurgence in my own depression and anxiety. I told a friend that I was battling with depression. What I said stuck in my mind, because it is a terrible description. I am not battling my illness, I am trying to cooperate with it. The more that I battle, the worse I become.
With the right words, we can rewrite our story.
What we say about our own, or about another person’s mental illness can change lives for the better or for worse. What follows is The Seven Words of Our Mental Illness:
1. Just crazy…
We think we know what this one means, but we are wrong. Crazy originally meant cracked, flawed or unsound. Referring to ourselves as crazy may sound funny, but the message is “I am flawed, and unlike all of the other normals out there.”
Just for fun, try screaming “I am crazy” in a grocery store. It will get you faster access to the check out and support from the security guard.
To me, crazy reinforces the stigma that mental illness is the result of flawed character, bad choices or other deficits. Said differently, to experience a mental illness is to be… abnormal. But this is not the case. Mental illness is not a Declaration of Deficit, it is a Badge of Brilliance. Brilliant men and women live with mental illness and defy any stereotypes: Artist – Van Gough, Prime Minister – Winston Churchill, Comedian – Robin Williams, Psychology Professor – Kay Jamison, Actor – Carrie Fisher.
2. Battling with…
A military metaphor. In any battle, you use weapons against your enemy. If you battle your mental illness, you are in combat, in search for a cure.
The Battle metaphor brings me to some questions: When we view a mental illness as a battle, how is victory achieved and who is the victor? Who is the defeated? What if the battle is never completed? What if in winning the war, we destroy the territory?
Mental illness will cause suffering, but it can also give you gifts: slowing down, listening, accepting help, being vulnerable and sharing your story, realizing you are not alone, discovering true courage… Viewing mental illness as an enemy is a way of refusing it’s subtle generosities. For me, my illness is one of the ways that my body talks to me. Now THAT sounds crazy… but trust me, our bodies talk. Just go to McDonalds and listen to what they are saying.
3. Journeying with…
Who doesn’t like to walk? A journey with a mental illness is like an unending walk. Walking with a partner conveys cooperation and finding peace with your experience. This metaphor is less about a cure, more about process.
If you journey with something, you build a relationship and experience life together. For some, the journey begins in a hole and they have a long climb out. A journey can feel like and eternity and may not give us the right words to rewrite our story.
4. Living with…
You are in a relationship with a mental illness (lets call him Mitch). Now, Mitch lives in the basement and you live upstairs. Every now and then he lumbers up and sits on your couch. And. He. Will. Not. Leave. Mitch creates chaos and mess.
You tried ignoring Mitch, then you tried to drown him out with booze and music. But all that did was give you a hangover. Then you tried to get him evicted. When you were at the end of yourself and you could do nothing more, you finally realized that Mitch just sits there. He is not threatening and for some reason, he is patient.
Over time, you build a relationship. You get to know Mitch and realize that you both have needs, strengths and seasons. You have a partnership and you make it work. Then Mitch wanders back downstairs and you get your life back. For now.
This one can be fun because externalizing a mental illness creates a workable, positive story. We are actors in our story and we can rewrite the script. Depending on the illness, or the level of intensity, thinking that a suicidal paranoid schizophrenic named Moonbeam moved in can be overwhelming.
5. Dealing with…
Mental illness is a game and we play the cards we are dealt. There is one dealer and many players. Some players are better than others. No compassion, you just have to accept your cards and deal with it. Life has no regard for you or your needs.
Think about this one. I doesn’t make sense that mental illness is a game. To me, it feels fatalistic. Life is more than what we are dealt with. It is about wonder, pain, beauty, overcoming and recovery.
6. Experience with…
This one makes me feel like Spock with depression (which is… illogical). I experience a roller coaster and then I go home. Mental illness can feel like being on a roller coaster that comes home with us and never goes away. Mental illness is far more than just an experience.
If mental illness is merely an experience, then it feels scientific, detached and depersonalized. One of the keys to healing is connecting with, not detaching from, our emotions, our body and our mind. If the words we use make us feel detached, it may be time to detach from our words.
7. A dance with…
Mental illness is a partnership of semi-equals. Each partner adjusts to the other, and each has their unique strengths and weaknesses. Each song asks for different moves. Dancing asks you to let yourself be out there, to be vulnerable and to risk, but you soon realize that everyone else is just making it up as they go.
Dancing is not about perfection. The best dancers possess grace that keeps them moving in spite of their flaws and failed attempts.
Grace, it’s the name for a girl
It’s also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything
“You are you. Not the emotions you feel. Not the darkness within. It’s just a stranger come to confuse your mind. Think for a moment about all that you’ve been through. Think about the battles waged and wars won and lost. Notice anything? You are still here. You have triumphed continuously and if that isn’t a surefire sign that things will be alright, I don’t know what is.”
Keep it Real