I was a little girl, no more than ten years old, maybe younger. I was upset, riding home from the pool with a friend and her grandmother. What had upset me? I can’t recall. I just remember being overwhelmed and confused. Something was going on inside my head, and I didn’t understand it.
My friend’s grandmother went inside a gas station and left us in the car. I tried to explain my feelings to my friend, but she didn’t get it. I was crying, sitting on the floorboard of the car, looking up at my perfectly normal friend. Why couldn’t I make her understand?
I thought hard about how I was feeling. I felt sick, but not sick to my stomach. I didn’t have a cold or anything like that. I wasn’t in physical pain, but I hurt. I felt sick inside my head, and I was a kid with a sizable vocabulary. I could use the word ill instead of the word sick and not think twice about it. I also knew that things dealing with the brain were labeled “mental.”
I told my friend I was mentally ill.
Her reaction was less than pleasant.
Why does that phrase scare so many people?
I was discussing this with a group of writer friends, recently. There is a huge push to accurately display characters with mental illness in fiction. I love this push, because fiction is one of the best ways I have found for building empathy.
If I don’t understand something, I can usually read a story told from the point of view of someone who DOES understand whatever it is, and I empathize with the character. I start to get it.
Novels are magic in this way.
During this writerly conversation, many people acknowledged a dislike of the term “mentally ill.” It comes with a stigma… people hear it and picture all sorts of things but rarely whatever the actual illness entails. For the most part, people hear “mentally ill” and think of the farthest extreme of schizophrenia.
When someone has cancer, diabetes, or even a cold, they are physically ill. I have heard people talk about hearing something horrible and how it made them “physically ill.”
So why does “mentally ill” make people uncomfortable?
Even if you don’t have a diagnosed “mental illness,” such as depression, Bipolar disorder, OCD, etc… there are probably times in your life you have not felt great mentally, you have felt sick emotionally. But I bet you wouldn’t have said you were feeling mentally ill.
I don’t get it.
Why should I be ashamed to struggle with an illness just because it affects my brain instead of my body?
And usually, I don’t.
Usually, I take my meds and make jokes about “my crazy.” But there have been times… I can remember someone throwing the term “manic depressive” at me like a hand grenade, and I sobbed and sobbed. That isn’t even my diagnosis, but it doesn’t matter.
That person would have never thought to call someone a diabetic in such an insulting tone.
As I have thought on this blog post and thought on this topic, I have asked myself exactly what it is I want a reader to take away with them. In other words, WHY am I writing this today?
I don’t think me saying these things will fix the problem, but I do think it is a good step in saying, hey you, yeah, you…
You are not alone.
Sometimes people get sick. In their bodies or in their brains (which, actually, the brain IS part of the body, so what the hey, but I digress). People get sick. Sometimes they get better. Sometimes they live with some illness or another all of their lives. If you are sick, it’s okay.
I am too.
Sometimes I am still that little girl in the floorboard of the car, trying desperately to put words to what I am feeling. The friend with me that day was just a kid. She didn’t know how to be supportive, how to help me. But now I am graced with friends who don’t look down at me and laugh, friends who are willing to help me up and walk beside me, whether they understand it or not.
I’ve heard it explained a billion times and I still don’t understand how cancer happens, but it definitely does.
You don’t have to know how Depression happens.
Just trust me.
And you are not alone.