In the past few months, I’ve known two people who have taken their own lives. One was an intelligent, creative 16-year-old student. The other was a successful, legendary 41-year-old professional athlete. Both of these people embodied what it is to be happy on the outside. They had everything that others wished for.
In the aftermath of trying to comprehend these shocking situations, it’s almost impossible to understand. But if you’ve had the unfortunate experience of suffering from a mental illness, it’s easier to relate. If you’ve never had to deal with the struggles of a mental illness, feel lucky. The brain is the most powerful tool we have, but often the least understood.
People who struggle don’t let it show on the outside, so you’ll usually never know. They’re strong, and don’t want to admit when there’s a problem. They’re creative, or athletic, or really good at what they do because it’s an outlet for them to express themselves and get out of the darkness of their own mind. They try to have a perfect life on the outside because of their imperfections on the inside.
From a young age, we learn the basics of understanding emotion. Smiling means happy, crying means sad. We learn that people react to situations, and that is how we control our moods. But as with everything in life, we grow to learn that there are always complexities that change our understanding. Sometimes there are mischievous intentions hidden behind a smile. Sometimes crying means you can’t contain the happiness you’re feeling, so it spills out of your body. We learn these things over time, and we understand them because everyone has felt these emotions before.
But what about the things you don’t understand, because you’ve never experienced it? The unexplainable sadness. Not a situation that makes you feel sad for a while, but a deep sadness that you can’t explain. How do you deal with something when there’s not a reason for it? There’s not an answer. You can’t look at someone who’s struggling and say,“Snap out of it,” or, “Your life is fine,” or, “So many people have it worse than you,” or even, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” These stigmas that depression is something you have control over, and if you don’t, you’re weak — those are the stigmas made by people who have never experienced it. Those are the stigmas that keep people who are struggling from asking for help.
This is how I try to explain depression to someone who has never experienced it. You’ve fallen into a deep hole. You try to climb out by using different methods, but just keep slipping further and further. You fall so deep that you can no longer see the light at the opening. You’ve tried and failed so many times that you begin to lose all hope of ever escaping. If only people felt that it was acceptable to reach out. Maybe an understanding friend can provide the rope to pull you out. Or a therapist can provide the steps so you can walk back up to the light. Or a psychiatrist can provide the pills that float you to the surface.
Similarly, bipolar disorder is another example. You are on a roller coaster in the dark. You can’t see what’s ahead of you, or how long a certain phase is going to last.
You climb so high you feel elated, thrilled, invincible — manic. Then all of a sudden the coaster dives so low, and you’re in that hole. For no reason, it’s just the way the coaster was built, just the way your brain was built. Next thing you know, you’re coasting in a straight line with only small bumps. You never know if or when the roller coaster will rise or fall. And you’re not in control. You’re not the operator of the ride.
Society wants to help and understand and raise awareness. But I’m almost 27 years old, and very few people know that I was diagnosed with an unspecified mood disorder over a decade ago. I’m a special kind of crazy that doesn’t even fit into a specific psychological group.
Why did I feel I needed to keep this secret? I felt embarrassed. I felt vulnerable to judgement and guilt for not being perfect. I’m a strong person, this made me feel weak. I like to be in control, I thought I could fix my own brain. I didn’t want to make excuses for my actions. People would think I was being dramatic. I’m such a happy person on the outside, the diagnosis was wrong- I’d be fine. Which sometimes I was.
That’s the tricky part about mental illness- it’s not constant. When you feel fine, you let your guard down, and when the illness clouds your brain, it sends you spiraling out of control with no warning. Thinking back on it now, some of my relationships could’ve been smoother if I had taken the time to explain what I was struggling with, and if people took the time to try to understand it.
Sometimes abstract ideas are hard to comprehend. But if society starts to be more open-minded of the things that they can’t understand, maybe we can begin to save each other.