“I wish I had just broken my leg.” She told me, as we sat in together on the cracked and threadbare sofa in the psychiatric ward. “My brother-in-law broke his leg a few months back. Stupid motorcycle accident. His fault, by the way. He was in hospital for less than 24 hours. The entire family descended. Brought him cards and presents. Cleaned the house. Cooked him meals…I have been sick for months. I have been in hospital for weeks. Not a single person has visited me, cooked meals for my family, babysat my kids, sent me a card, or even acknowledged our trauma. I guess people understand physical pain more than mental pain…Why couldn’t I have just broken my damn leg?”
I empathise and understand her story. I believe this is the unfortunate, frustrating, and upsetting case for many – if not most – individuals hospitalised for psychiatric reasons. But I don’t necessarily agree with her point.
Because, come on, who doesn’t understand mental pain.
Everyone in the world has undergone some form of mental pain. While, obviously, the entire population doesn’t suffer from diagnosable mental illness, I refuse to believe that ANYONE sails through life without feeling some degree of emotional turmoil – whether it be loneliness, heartbreak, fear, or sadness. Turn your radio on. I guarantee that 90% of the songs given airtime detail emotional states, both positive and negative. Artists don’t sell albums filled with songs about their broken legs. It’s all about broken hearts.
It’s not lack of understanding. It’s discrimination and stigma.
I have two chronic illnesses that I deal with every day. Both offer their own “special” challenges. But I often think to myself that if I were to play favourites, I would prefer my autoimmune disease to my mental illness.
Don’t get me wrong. My autoimmune disease is a giant pain. Literally. I am so sick of explaining it to people. To having this rare illness that no one, not even the so called professionals have heard of. To having to read every single ingredient with a fine tooth comb. Of irritating the restaurant staff with my paranoid questioning. Of hurling in the car park afterwards anyway. Of indescribable pain and pills. Of fevers and fatigue and the kind of bone ache that makes you want to cry. Of highly unpleasant tests and procedures. Of hearing that my blood eosinophil level is four times the normal limit. And that’s an improvement. Of being scared to eat new foods. Of not leaving the house without a vomit bag. Of being threatened with steroids and hardcore immunosuppresants that have serious side effects. Of being sick.
But, you know, people respect it.
If I throw up or have an allergic reaction or go to bed with fevers and sweats, people are generally sympathetic. If I can’t go to a social occasion because I am physically unwell, people are cool with it. “Get well!” They say. “Rest up!” They say.
But if I become mentally unwell, people (with exception, of course, to the few of my closest and most wonderful loved ones) don’t tell me to “Get well” or “Rest up”. I am encouraged to pull myself together. Keep my chin up. Not feel sorry for myself. Think of people who have worse problems.
Like mental experience doesn’t count.
Talk about double standards.
Those of us with mental illness are somehow expected to negate our emotional experience, while validating the emotional experiences of others through expected social interaction. We are not allowed to be clinically depressed, manic, or psychotic. But we must listen and empathise with those who are stressed, tired, involved in some sort of altercation, lovesick, feeling guilty, feeling happy, etc etc. Of course, if we want to be sad after a break up, or a death, or a job loss we can. But only for a socially acceptable amount of time, and only to a socially acceptable degree.
In my ideal world my mental illness would be treated with the same respect as my physical illness. And in my ideal world suicidal individuals would receive the help they need, and those who self harmed wouldn’t fear seeking medical assistance. Funds would be issued to psychiatric hospitals. Mental illness wouldn’t be viewed as something only the weak or dangerous succumb to. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have hid my illness for months because I was scared of what people would say.
As time goes on, the less and less I seem to care about what people think of my mental illness. In the famous words of Dr. Suess “Those who matter don’t mind. And those who mind don’t matter.” My experiences have weeded out the people who don’t matter. The people who have a problem with the fact that I have an illness I did not choose to suffer from (and I loath to use this term, as I do feel there are positive aspects of mental illness as well as negative). But I also know that I am fortunate, and possibly somewhat of an exception. I know who my true supporters are. My family and close friends are exceptional. Many others struggling with mental illness don’t have this kind of back up. I’m one of the lucky ones.
But sometimes I sit back and wonder how many people I would have lost if I had broken my leg instead.