No, A Mental Illness Is Not “All In Your Head”

Yesterday, I was standing in the check-out line at Target behind a woman on her cell phone who was talking in an unnecessarily loud voice. As I piled a few frozen burritos (yes, I buy those) onto the conveyor belt I overheard her say:

“I’m just in such a bad mood, I don’t want to deal with this…”

And 10 seconds later, she followed that comment up with:

“…no, I’m not depressed! I don’t believe in that, it’s like, just ’cause people have bad moods doesn’t mean they’re depressed,” she punctuated that comment with a chuckle. I pretended not to hear her but she wasn’t doing herself any favors in shielding others from overhearing.

“Well, it’s like those people who think they’re OCD because they’re uptight about cleaning or washing their hands or whatever…so stupid, it’s all in their head,” she continued.

At that point, I deliberately tuned her out. Her words stung. And I felt that sting deep down. But it’s nothing I am not used to by now. Some people are ignorant by choice and make judgments about things they don’t know simply because they are either scared of or don’t understand them.

Mental illness is one of those things.

I wanted to retaliate. I wanted to tell that woman how ignorant and judgmental those words sounded. But she was on the phone and I have a feeling a quarrel would have ensued which would have totally killed the buzz I had going after finding my favorite mascara, a DVD, and a cute top for summer on sale. (None of which were on my shopping list but that’s the ecstasy and agony of shopping at Target — leaving with $37.00 worth of extra stuff you didn’t intend to buy, right?)

I steels myself until it was my turn to check-out. I watched the woman, still on her phone squawking like an angry seagull, as she shuffled away with her cart.

This reminded me of what I have known for a long time: there are people that think mental illness is a matter of mood, or of personality. There are people who believe depression is simply a form being sad, and anxiety is worrying too much and that OCD is a behavior problem for people who are just too uptight. They believe the soul is sick, rather than the body. Or that the sufferer is not really suffering from something that deserves a doctor’s attention and just needs to “chill out.”

I know how very wrong, and stigmatizing, this kind of thinking is.

One thing that sucks about having a mental health condition is that you have to try harder than the average person to be happy. And it feels unfair that something that seems to come naturally for others doesn’t come naturally for you. This creates guilt and shame and resentment toward the universe (or God) for getting it wrong when it came your turn to be fitted with a brain and proper emotional wiring on the assembly line.

In this effort to be happy, it is the judgment and ignorance of other’s like I encountered yesterday that can derail all progress. Because it hurts when someone trivializes something that has caused you great pain and anguish and has cost you money, time, and energy for the never-ending run-around of doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions and pharmacy pick-ups. A part of me wants to grab people like the woman whose phone conversation I overheard and shake them and tell them they have no idea what they’re saying or what someone with real depression goes through and that if they did, they would think twice about making such assumptions.

But that would probably make me look pretty crazy.

What I wish people understood about mental illness is that when your body is working against you, it is a hard, and at times devastating cycle to conquer. The perceived lack of control is crippling and you don’t always get a choice in how it manifests. You must take it as it comes and hope and believe that just like the last time you felt this way and came out of it on the other side, you can this time, too. Unfortunately, it is hard to think about making it to the other side in the moment when all you can make sense of and think about is how dark and alone and hopeless you feel.

I’ve been there. Far too many times, I’ve been there. And it serves as a blow to the gut each time — one that almost always feels worse than the last. And the time spent waiting for the discomfort and agony to release its grip — that suffocating and relentless psychological hold — seems to ooze by excruciatingly slow. It drains me. It drains me of strength and will and hope.

These are the unfair, hard, and spirit-crushing side effects of mental health conditions, the stuff that that lady at Target will likely never understand until it happens to her or someone she loves.

When you have a mental illness, you don’t get a manual from the doctor about how to cope. Sure, in the clinical sense, you might get an idea of what to do or anticipate but it does not always match the unique, individual experience. This is because mental illness is not a measurable, tangible thing that can be clearly defined and fought like diabetes or asthma. This makes it much harder for non-sufferers to understand or give credence to the mental health struggle, which in turn, makes it easier for them to dismiss it as being “all in someone’s head.” And those words can cause a lot of damage to the already fragile ego of the person suffering. Because for a person who has ventured through the dark, deep valleys of the psychological prison of illness, it becomes a whole lot more than just feelings and sadness and “stuff in your head.” It becomes a part of you in the same way that eye color and hair are a part of us — or at least, a part of how we identify ourselves. And if we can shield ourselves from the shame of feeling inadequate or broken, we might be able to accept our illness as a matter of chemistry and biology and environment, not of weak spirit or will, or of fluctuating moods.

Making that distinction, though, is not easy. We live in a society that does not fully understand what proper treatment and dialogue and awareness about mental health looks like. (As evidenced by the woman from yesterday). Our culture is stunted in its understanding and as a result, sufferers like myself often feel like we have no right or rational reason to feel the way we do and no voice in the fight against the stigma. This makes the idea of giving up and believing it is all in our head very appealing sometimes.

But that type of thinking helps no one and only hurts the sufferer.

I wonder what the lady at Target would think if she knew how her words sounded. I wonder what every person who has ever minimized, demeaned, or discounted issues of mental health would think if they had a real glimpse into the struggle?

My hope is that they would stop having opinions and start having compassion.

It takes a herculean amount of strength to live with a mental illness. I am still learning how to be strong and what exactly “being strong” looks like for me in the face of PTSD. What I learned yesterday was that our strength grows when we have the courage to challenge the words and assumptions of others, even if only internally. Because for anyone who has been through the trenches of an illness, the choice to keep going and not quit is what makes the light that much warmer on the other side, and is ultimately what prove one’s strength. As for people like the woman in line ahead of me at Target, the only consolation, maybe, is this: we know that we have faced the big, scary fear of living with a mental health condition. And we survived. We know that we are strong. We know that we can stand up to that which scares us. Because we know that it is so much more than simply “all in our head.” And we have done the bravest thing we can do by choosing to keep fighting anyway. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

featured image – Sodanie Chea

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