Mental Illness Awareness Week

This week (October 4-10) is Mental Illness Awareness Week.  I wanted to post some thoughts about awareness and compassion, and to talk a little more about what goes on in my head.

People don't just walk around with a button on their jacket that says "Hi, I live with depression", "I live with chronic illness", or "I live with Bipolar II". In many cases, you can't distinguish someone who is totally healthy in every way from someone who is dealing with 7 different chronic illnesses at the same time. Because we've learned to hide it so well. There is simply no way to know unless you ask, or they happen to mention to you, that they are not "the average person". And as a matter of course, we assume everyone we meet is just like us. They think like us, and they react like us. But you just don't know what is happening inside other people's heads that might fuel their responses or create the filter through which they view life and interaction.

I've mentioned that I have lived with depression and anxiety. Sometimes my depression is so severe that it bottoms out into seasons of self hatred. I have written a three part series about self hatred here and written poetry in the midst of depression that I have posted here and here. Sometimes my anxiety is so bad that I have panic attacks that wake me from sleep, or give me a hair-trigger so the smallest unimportant things throw me into a screaming rage. I developed PAS, a recognized form of PTSD after a traumatic experience in my late teens, and sometimes that gets triggered too.

I lived portions of my life in almost crippling overwhelmedness, shame, and anxiety from what it took to essentially single parent several small children while dealing with chronic sleep deprivation, and homeschooling, and trying keep up with my house. I felt incredible amounts of guilt when I measured myself against other people and how they could bear up under stress and daily life. I couldn't admit those feelings to anyone because I couldn't risk their judgment of my weakness and failure. The only reason I no longer live in that place of crippling overwhelmedness is because I have come to a place of peace with my limitations. I started making self-care a priority. And I have mostly stopped comparing myself and my parenting skills and my particular children to others.

I would like to submit to you that situations and stressors that may seem like no big deal to you might seem unbearably stressful to another person. We are all created differently, and bear up under stress in different ways. We also all have our own neuroses, the things that just nearly drive us crazy about our home, our apperance, or a life situation that oftentimes make no rational sense to others. The way in which we bear up under stress affects how we treat ourselves, our families, our friends, and even complete strangers. It affects how we behave at home where no one can see, and out in the world where anyone can bear witness to it.

I do, actually, have a good friend that has seven different chronic illnesses that she is dealing with at the same time. I have friends with fibromyalgia, with lupus, with visible physical challenges like spina bifida and cerebral palsy. I have friends with invisible disabilities like sensory processing disorder, high functioning autism, seasonal affective disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic pain. And I have friends who live with mental illnesses like severe depression and bipolar disorder, who in addition to just living daily life, have the added stress of coordinating the delicate balance of avoiding triggers and dealing with medication adjustments often.

I also know a significant number of people who suffer in abusive relationships, many of whose bruises are invisible to the casual onlooker. I have been in several of those relationships, too. I can most assuredly tell you that there is suffering and there are psychological effects, and that they may be the least likely kinds of suffering for people to let on about. They don't want anyone to know the shame, the humiliation, and the control they live under. That it's not valid for them to complain about their dysfunctional relationship because it's "not bad enough" when compared to "real abusive relationships". Relationships like that can contribute to a lot of unseen and invisible illnesses like PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

Everyone has their own story, and everyone's story is valid and unique. Because people struggle with mental illness, it doesn't make them weak, and in working to manage their mental illness, they are not a failure for not being able to manage it without therapy or medication.

The truth is that we're all various levels of messed up inside, it's just a matter of do we own that, and embrace it. Do we ignore it and live every day with a facade up for everyone, or do we admit we need compassion, and mercy, and grace. And can we extend the same to others?

Try to see more than the present moment. Really look at people when they talk to you, and really listen to what they say. Everyone hurts, everyone gets scared, everyone gets insecure, and everyone is afraid people will reject them if they knew what they were really like.

See? Everyone is just like you inside.