I’m letting my heart spill out through my keyboard… metaphorically, of course, and I’m offering it all to you. Today, I’m going to talk about my mental health. This is something that I’ve worked to conceal for a long time, mostly because of the negative stigma attached to mental illness. I’m sharing for two main reasons; (1) to educate people, and (2) to show people like me that they are not alone.
For the record: I’m living with Bipolar Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder… In this post I’m sharing 10 “harmless things” that people have said to me that actually cause me a great deal of pain. I’m also sharing how they make me feel, and why, while giving you an inside look at my life.
So, these are the things I wish you wouldn’t say to me;
“You don’t look like you have a mental illness.”
More commonly stated as; “you don’t look depressed” or “but, you look so normal”.
Please, tell me, what is a bipolar person supposed to look like? What is a depressed person supposed to look like?
Yes, you see me standing in the grocery store, politely smiling and nodding at people… and you think to yourself “she looks completely normal”… What you don’t see is the conflict inside me, and how painful my smile sometimes is.
You see a smiling woman. You didn’t see me last night, when I had a panic attack while making my shopping list. You didn’t see me 30 minutes ago, when I prayed and gave myself a pep talk in the car. You didn’t see me 10 minutes ago, when I put my earbuds in and turned on music to avoid an embarrassing public anxiety attack.
No, you just see a happy woman shopping for avocado and white onion… You see no indication of the chaos and panic going on inside my mind, because I work super hard to keep it all inside.
Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder are all invisible illnesses. So, what am I supposed to look like?
“I wish I was manic; I’d get so much done.”
With all due respect, no. If you understood what mania was you would never wish for it. Seriously, I wouldn’t wish a manic episode on my worst enemy.
Being stuck inside of a manic episode can be an emotionally debilitating experience; it’s painful, exhausting, and completely illogical. Imagine having a swarm of rabid bumblebees trapped inside your head. There are hundreds of buzzing bees, and every single bee has its own project to do. Every bumblebee project is emergent and needs to be completed, in its entirety, immediately. So you spend hours, days, or maybe even weeks aimlessly running around in an unrealistic fashion trying to complete all the bizarre bumblebee tasks.
It’s not efficient. It’s stressful and it can cause major life impairment, so stop wishing for it.
Bipolar mania is an illness. You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer “I wish I could have chemo, I’d lose so much weight” would you? No. You wouldn’t. Because it would be rude and insensitive. So stop it.
“You just need a hobby.”
I wish it could be that simple. I’ve had enough hobbies for 5 lifetimes, and guess what: I’m still bipolar, I still have obsessive compulsive disorder, and I’m still a prisoner to social anxiety. I’ve tried painting, biking, yoga, running, weight lifting, hiking, fishing, spectator sports, journaling, photography, coloring, you name it… and, sure, sometimes a hobby can be a nice distraction, but more often than not a hobby can cause additional anxiety.
For example, a few months ago I tried to join a comic book reading group. I mean, I absolutely love comic books, so it seemed perfect. I bought the comic books, read them, re-read them, wrote detailed notes, researched the comics, developed questions, and talking points for the group discussion. On the day of the group I got dressed (in a t-shirt that matched the comic), put the comics in my backpack, and proceeded to have an absolute meltdown because of unknowns: how many people would be at the group, what if I didn’t know anyone, or (even worse) what if I did know someone and they didn’t like me, what if my talking points weren’t good enough? My anxiety became an endless thought spiral that I couldn’t control. Thus turning my hobby into an additional cause of anxiety, which ultimately resulted in a full-blown anxiety attack, hours of crying, and me not leaving the house for days.
The “you just need a hobby” comment is particularly hurtful because it invalidates the seriousness of my illness. Like, my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder will be miraculously cured if I take up knitting? No.
“Have you tried praying about it?”
Yes. The answer is yes. I pray constantly.
I pray that God will give me the strength to get out of bed to feed and care for my dogs when I’m having an episode of bipolar depression.
I pray that God will steady my voice, so I won’t constantly over talk others when I’m stuck in an episode of bipolar mania.
I pray that God will strengthen my resolve when I have racing thoughts of worthlessness that could lead to self-harm.
I pray that God will help me be strong, and learn to control my emotions, so I can be a mother someday.
I also pray about hundreds of things that have nothing to do with my mental illness.
So, yes, I pray.
These “prayer” comments hurt, they really hurt. For example, a few weeks ago I posted a blog about my struggle with depression, someone who read it said to me; “that’s you letting the devil in, you have to pray harder.” That comment hit me like a punch directly to the gut; upon hearing it I immediately got dizzy, nauseous, and frantic. I know, I know, their comment probably came from a good place… But it made me feel so empty. My mental illness is not caused by the absence of God, or presence of the devil… it’s a chemical imbalance that I’ll have to live with during my time on Earth, regardless of my relationship with God. Sure, a strong relationship with God makes everything more bearable, but praying won’t make my bipolar disorder go away. Praying, will, however, help me become stronger in facing the adversity that life has given me. So I pray.
“Everybody gets sad/stressed sometimes, it doesn’t mean you have a mental illness.”
This is important, so pay attention: sadness is not the same as depression, and stress is not the same as anxiety. Additionally, this statement is hurtful because it means that you don’t take my illness seriously. For example: you wouldn’t say to a person with Lupus; “everyone get sunburn, that doesn’t mean you have Lupus” would you? No, hopefully you wouldn’t, because that statement is both senseless and uneducated.
Sadness is a normal human emotion. Depression, on the other hand, is an abnormal emotional state caused by a mental illness.
Sad people are sad because something happened that caused their sadness; it could be something huge (like the loss of a loved one), or something small (like a bad first date), and sadness normally lasts a reasonable amount of time. Whereas depression needs no cause or invitation, it just happens, completely unsolicited… and there is no logic or rational thought behind how long it sticks around. Sure, depression can be triggered by a sad event, and severe sadness can lead to a form or depression, but that’s an entirely different conversation.
Sad people are sad. People with depression experience deep feelings of worthlessness, difficulty in concentration and connectivity, decreased pleasure in things that are normally pleasurable, a lack in concern for personal hygiene, and even thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
Example: If I was simply sad (from a breakup, or whatever) I’d eat a pint of ice cream with my friends, cry a little, maybe get a haircut, and binge-watch a TV show. If I was experiencing depression, I would let the ice cream melt on the countertop, ignore my friends calls (for days, or even weeks), forget to shower or brush my hair (for days, or even weeks), and I wouldn’t be able to binge-watch, because TV shows probably wouldn’t bring me joy… I’d just sit, or lay, numb to the world, in a worthless state of “blah”. See the difference?
I guess you could put it this way: Sadness is feeling sad. Depression is feeling nothing, at all.
Stress originates from the pressures that a person feels in their everyday life; you have a deadline approaching, your child has two bake sales and a school dance this week, you got a flat tire on the way to work, etc… With stress, once the obstacle is achieved the emotion (stress) disappears, until it reappears because of another stressful obstacle; the bake sale is over, so the “bake sale stress” leaves, and on-and-on-and-so-forth. Anxiety, however, doesn’t work so conveniently: true anxiety will continue after the stressor is gone, or will originate out of nowhere when it doesn’t even seem like there is a stressor around.
When you’re stressed you can feel overwhelmed for a short or extended period of time. When you’re having anxiety you can experience a debilitating state of emotions. I normally call these emotions “crippling vertigo spirals” [patent pending]; I get faint, dizzy, and nauseous, I feel an intense amount of terror, followed quickly by chest pains, and cold sweats, my mind begins racing wildly, and I can’t calm down. If I’m in a private place (like my home) I immediately sit down and begin my calming techniques, but if I’m in a public place (like a movie theater or shopping mall) my small anxiety attack can turn into an episode, and it’s a horrible and helpless, situation – “crippling vertigo spiral” is really the only words I can find to describe it.
Back to the comment: by saying “everyone gets sad” or “everyone gets stressed” you are erasing the validity of my illness. You are basically saying that my illness doesn’t exist to you. I have a real illness, please don’t belittle or invalidate it in such a casual way. It’s real. I live with it every day.
“But your life is perfect, you have nothing to be depressed about.”
This statement is just ridiculous.
Carrie Fisher had Bipolar Disorder.
Melissa Benoist struggles with Depression.
Lady Gaga has Fibromyalgia.
Chrissy Teigen struggled with Postpartum Depression.
Michael Phelps has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Daniel Radcliffe has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
My Favorite Advisor from College has Lupus.
All of those amazing people live seemingly normal lives. All of those people inspire happiness in others. All of those people seem like they live perfect lives; Princess Leia, Supergirl, an Olympian, Harry Potter… All of those people, including me, have an invisible illness. We live with it. We look normal. But the illness is there, and it is the illness inside us that causes our symptoms, not the life around us. So, we look normal. So what?
“You must be manic right now.”
I normally hear this when I’m excited about something. Sometimes people confuse genuine excitement for a manic episode. For example, I’ll start talking, passionately, about a book or movie release and someone will stop me and say, “calm down, you’re a little too manic right now.” No, I’m just excited. I’m allowed to be excited about things, just like everyone else.
This is one of the biggest buzzkills ever.
“At least there’s nothing physically wrong with you.”
This statement makes me want to scream. It’s just awful. I don’t even know how to explain how awful this is.
First off, I don’t like the latter part of the statement; “wrong with you”. There is nothing “wrong with me”, I’m just me. I have an illness, it’s there, and I’m fine with it.
Second, what do you mean by “physically wrong”? Because there are MANY physical symptoms of my illness.
My Physical Stuff:
Obsessive Skin Picking: A few years ago my dermatillomania got so bad that I almost lost a finger due to a really bad infection. My obsessive compulsion, at the time, was skin picking, and I couldn’t stop picking at my hands… and I don’t mean picking a hangnail; I mean digging relentlessly at gaping wounds on my hands. It was painful, bloody, and awful. It took therapy, trials with many medications, and years of practice to calm the compulsion down. Now I get fake nails put on bi-monthly because it’s more difficult to pick with acrylic nails. The obsession is still there. I carry Band-Aids and gloves in my purse, so I can put them on when I start picking. Mainly so I won’t get blood all over everything. Is that physical enough for you?
Obsessive Teeth Grinding: My anxiety causes such bad night terrors that I’ve actually cracked my teeth in my sleep. I often wake up with a bloody mouth. I recently got a mouth guard to wear at night, so I don’t break all my teeth.
Anxiety Related Hives: They look a lot like poison ivy. Actually, once in college I had a really bad anxiety attack and broke out in hives. I thought it was poison ivy, so I covered myself in calamine lotion. Then, I fell asleep because I was so exhausted from the anxiety attack. When I woke up I realized that I was late for volleyball practice, so I rushed to practice – still covered in the calamine lotion… I told my teammates that I had poison ivy, but to my amazement the hives were gone… my teammates got mad, and thought I was making an excuse for being late. It wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered they were anxiety hives. I get them all the time, they are huge, ugly, and they itch like crazy, but they go away after an hour-or-so. I never told my teammates, or my coach the truth (because I was so embarrassed about my disorder)… they will find out, now, if they are reading this.
Post-Mania Pain: When I’m manic it’s like I’m trapped underwater, holding my breath. It causes all my bones and muscles to tense up. So, when my mania finally goes away I’m left with the aftermath of my own body, and it’s often excruciating. Joint pain. Muscle pain. Headaches from teeth grinding. Dehydration from panicked breathing. Post-Mania body pain is one of my absolute least favorite parts of life. I don’t wanna put into words how painful it can be.
I’m gonna stop there, because I’m not mentally ready to share other physical side-effects with you… maybe someday.
But, for the record: sure, I don’t have the stereotypical characteristics of someone with an obvious physical impairment or disability… But that still isn’t a fair comparison. It isn’t fair to me, and it isn’t fair to people who live with a physical impairment. So, STOP USING THE WORD “WRONG”. Just stop.
“Have you tried herbal remedies?”
More commonly stated as; “I sell _______, and I bet it could help you with your bipolar disorder.”
These conversations are always super awkward. Someone will say; “oh, my cousin was super stressed too, then she tried lavender essential oils, and she’s all good now. I can sell you some essential oils for your stress.”
First, I’ll say it again: stress is not the same as a social anxiety disorder. Second, I believe that herbal remedies can, indeed, help people with mental illnesses… But, with that being said, people try to heal my disorders with stuff they are selling WAY TOO OFTEN… and it’s reached an insensitive level.
What am I supposed to say in reply to these “door-to-door mental illness experts”? Let’s take a look at my options;
Option 1: “I’m glad oils helped your stressed cousin, but I’m not stressed, I have a severe social anxiety disorder, it’s an actual chemical imbalance in my brain.”
Why Option 1 Doesn’t Work: It almost always results in someone, with no medical training, explaining my medical condition to me… normally in a belittling voice. Followed by “lavender essential oils will fix you right up”.
Option 2: “I would like to consult my physician before I start a treatment.”
Why Option 2 Doesn’t Work: When I use Option 2 I normally receive a reply like this “My product is recommended by doctors, my friend is a PA, and he recommends it to everyone. I’ll get you set up with a discounted sample trial. You’ll love it.”
You wouldn’t tell someone with Lupus to “just use sunscreen”, would you? So stop assuming my Bipolar Disorder or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be cured by a yearly supply of whatever product you’re selling… its insensitive, and hurtful.
Public Service Announcement: If you wanna sell something to me, just pitch it, you don’t have to bring up my illness… I like the smell of pumpkin… so run with that. I’ll probably end up buying something from you.
“At least you don’t have kids, then you’d be really stressed.” or “Good thing you’re not a mother, you wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
This is the worst type of comment. By far. I want to be a mother more than anything in the entire world… and I can’t, for the life of me, understand why people think this statement is appropriate. It’s not appropriate, in the slightest. It’s cruel and awful. I’m a capable human. A very capable human, actually. I share my struggles so other people can see that they are not alone. I share my insecurities so other people can find strength in them. I don’t share my illness so “Susan at the bake sale” can tell me that I would be an unfit mother…
If God blesses me with a baby someday I’ll be a fit mother. I’ll put that child’s needs before my own every single day. I will be a wonderful and capable mother. A mother that just so happens to be living with bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. If God gives my husband and I a child we will be amazing parents… and shame on you, “Susan”, for lumping my mental illness in a ball with parental stress.
I know stressors will come with parenthood, but I will conquer them all, in stride.
*“Susan” represents a wide-variety of people who have told me not to become a mother because of my mental illness. None of those people are actually named Susan, and none of the conversations happened at a bake sale.
Curtain Call: In Conclusion
If you’ve ever said one of these things to me, there is absolutely no need to apologize. You didn’t understand then, but now you do. Also, if you feel offended because I “called you out”, I’m sorry… But, I’m advocating for myself. My intention was never to offend or hurt anyone, ever. I just want kindness, awareness, and acceptance.
If you’re living with Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, or anything outside of that, or in between, always remember that you have survived 100% of your toughest days, and there is an entire world full of people who are on your team. Never, ever, ever, give up. You matter. I’ll leave you with two excerpts from my favorite Broadway Musical;
“Even if you’ve always been that barely-in-the-background kind of guy,
You still matter!
And even if you’re somebody who can’t escape the feeling that the world’s passed you by,
You still matter!
If you never get around to doing some remarkable thing, that doesn’t mean that you’re not worth remembering.
No one deserves to be forgotten,
No one deserves to fade away,
No one should flicker out or have any doubt that it matters that they are here,
No one deserves to disappear.”
-Dear Evan Hansen (Disappear)
“Even when the dark comes crashing through,
When you need a friend to carry you,
When you’re broken on the ground,
You will be found.
So let the sun come streaming in,
Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again,
Lift your head and look around,
You will be found.”
-Dear Evan Hansen (You Will Be Found)
Sincerely, Elizabeth (the Uncustomary Housewife)