Thought Catalog
May 13, 2014

6 Things The Internet Gets Wrong About Mental Illness (From Someone With An Anxiety Disorder)

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What is the issue?
Well, I suppose it’s a good a time as any to formally announce it: I have anxiety. Yes, like “a doctor told me and I take some medication (though not benzos)”-style clinical anxiety. I don’t really talk about it because, well, I’d like to hope that it doesn’t qualify as part of what I have to offer the world. It’s something that I work to manage, and hopefully one day overcome entirely. I have always felt this way, but it appears that the internet — with its endless stream of comics and articles and Tumblr slideshows about how to treat people with mental illness — does not feel that way. And here, the things I think the internet gets most egregiously wrong about people like me.

1. “How to love someone with ______” wildly misses the point.

Few things make me more upset than seeing articles/cartoons about “How to love someone with anxiety” or “How to love someone with depression.” Ummm, how about maybe we are not ready to be in a relationship with another person if we are still at the point where this other person would need a Power Point presentation of special rules to deal with us? The truth is that relationships are a privilege, and require two people who can equally give to the equation, and the person with the mental illness does not deserve a bunch of special treatment (but the significant other does deserve someone who can be emotionally present at all times). Sometimes our illness makes romantic relationships impossible, and we have an enormous amount of work ahead of us if we want to be able to share our lives with someone.

2. There are degrees of illness, and we’re not all the same.

I know where I fit on the spectrum. I am much better than I used to be (at one point I was compulsively lying and picking at my skin, which was just sExY aS hElL!!), but I’ve never been truly handicapped by my illness. I am able to function in society, and for the most part hide my problems. While the symptoms are occasionally physical, I am not as far along as other people who have seizure-like attacks, or who can’t leave their home — nowhere close. And when we paint ourselves with this brush of “mentally ill,” it erases an enormous amount of variation on the spectrum that is incredibly important. Part of the reason I don’t like to talk about these issues myself is because I know how lucky I am, and that people who are truly disabled in society should take priority in the conversation. Some of us, if we’re being honest with ourselves, can emotionally bootstrap and make it work on a day-to-day basis. And that is HUGELY important to acknowledge.

3. Asking people to accommodate illness can be deeply selfish.

I grew up in a household with a parent who suffered from mental illness. I remember the highs and lows, the good days and the bad days, and praying on a regular basis that they would magically get better — because I was afraid that I was causing the problem. Through years of hard work, therapy, medication, and lifestyle change, the illness is not conquered — it never truly is, of course — but it is manageable and, in day-to-day life, not noticeable. But on the worst of the bad days, it became a problem that overtook the family, that made a simple trip to the store or little league game an enormous undertaking. And while I don’t resent it, in the moment, it was incredibly difficult for everyone around the mentally ill person. This is something we don’t remember enough: While we may be battling severe depression, or obsessive compulsive disorder, or anxiety attacks, the people who love us (or are even just around us) are suffering, as well. Sometimes, people cannot handle this, and if they choose to leave our lives for their own mental health, that is something we have to accept.

4. While mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, it’s not something to be proud of, either. It just is.

Mistaking a disorder for a personality trait is truly the worst, and if you are listing it first in your online bios, you should probably consider everything else you have going on in your life, and what you have to offer the world.

5. Learning to live in everyone else’s world is a daily game.

I often see articles about “if you need space, you just take it,” or “if you can’t go to this party, or see that person, don’t do it.” The idea is that all of these social obligations are constructs, and if they interfere with our mental health, we should be able to drop them. And we can. But the people around you — employers, friends, lovers — have just as much a right to say these things to you. If you are the person who is constantly breaking plans at the last minute because you are overwhelmed at the idea of leaving your apartment, that is something you have to work your hardest to overcome. The onus is on us to become a functioning, empathetic, generous member of our social groups and society in general, not the other way around. If we indulge our illness at every turn, and find ourselves alone, we know who to blame for this. I had to recently stop reaching out to a person because she would take days to respond and say “Sorry, I wasn’t in a headspace to message you back. Been just holed up at the apartment.” And that doesn’t make me a bad person.

6. Other people are having trouble, too.

No matter how sick we are, the people around us won’t magically have it easier in comparison. Even if someone is mentally “healthy,” their life can still be fraught with problems and external factors that are causing them any number of symptoms. Positioning ourselves as the group that needs to be constantly accommodated, because we are the “sick” ones, is both selfish and unproductive. Everyone is having a hard time. Everyone is dealing with something. And we are not special for having a brain that works a little differently than others, we are people that need to participate in this great societal ecosystem. We should have enormous empathy and patience for others, if we expect it for ourselves. We don’t just get to be an asshole because of our personal problems, no matter how satisfying it can be. (AND YES, THAT GOES FOR YOU, TOO, INTROVERTS.) TC mark

image – melanie tata