On “Mental Illness”

Let me first start by stating the obvious, just in case anyone in the wide, wide world forgets I’m not, in fact, a professional.

I’m not a professional. 

Turns out I’m a highly introspective, contemplative, walking opinion. Surprise!

 

Anyway. Purpose.

I really hate the blanket terminology of “mental illness.”  Of course, there are legitimate illnesses of the mind or mental states that cause one to be ill. The phrasing itself is not inaccurate. I could be splitting hairs, especially because I’m currently struggling to really give a concise phrasing I like better. Maybe I’m stuck on the use of “mental” in that it pertains to the mind when it isn’t always the mind that is sick. I don’t know. All I know is that I hate explaining my occasional struggles as a “mental illness.”

I mean, just say the words, “I have a mental illness.”

Don’t you just feel like the person who hears that is about to assume you’re crazy?

Or incapable of managing your thoughts and emotions to be functional?

Or just too damned lazy to address yourself in order to cope like a “normal” human?

Nah, bro. It’s not like that. That’s not what it is at all.

 

Personally, I have two chronic health situations. I have fibromyalgia (here’s a general overview of fibro and many of the symptoms that accompany it), which affects me on and off at random. On the whole, fibro does not impact each and every day, all day. It’s hit and miss with spells that last for part of the day to spells that may last a week or so (those are usually associated with rainy fronts, similar to arthritis). It’s not fun, but it’s not always devastating for me, either. I can even make light of it at times.

For instance, when I don’t realize that fibro has impacted my balance and joint strength/stability,  I may go to get out of bed and fall immediately on the floor because my hip isn’t working. Talk about an aggressive waking mechanism. Or, to the amusement of my children, I may set out to do yoga and find out I’m having an off day by completely falling out of a pose. They know the difference between “Mommy has pain all the way to her bones,” and, “Mommy has zombie arms because her elbows are weird today,” so we can all laugh together when my being whacked out isn’t all that negatively impactful.

I may also have a day where I’m just making hand gestures because I can’t find words (it’s shocking, I know, to think there are days where I can’t do words), or when I can’t make my hands work buttons and zippers (my favorite defense for yoga pants). If I’m blankly staring at you or seem to have a larger number of SQUIRREL! moments, it’s because I’m a little foggy.

Or because you’re boring me. I mean, either/or. 

I’m lucky in that fibro can be severely debilitating in some people, requiring several medications to be functional on a regular basis. Can you imagine what it’s like to be in pain every, single day? I get annoyed when I’m having a pain day that makes it impossible for me to wear glasses (temporal tenderness) or bracelets (wrist tenderness) because the pain may radiate a bit, or I get embarrassed when I’m dragging a leg a little (hip pain) or miss a box jump (knee and ankle pain/weakness). Generally, it’s short-lived and managed with Ibuprofen and patience. Good to go. But for my mom, on the other hand, a gentle hug is excruciating at times. Laying down on her back can make her want to cry. A headache can make her whole body tense. Night time requires a heated blanket and several medications to sleep.

You can see how fighting your body in this way can lead to “mental illness” such as depression. It really isn’t fair that your body can just choose to rebel, for no reason, and screw up plans for an indefinite period of time. I mean, aside from the damage done internally by several back-to-back, difficult pregnancies and genetic endometriosis, a huge deciding factor in my hysterectomy was that every feminine issue I had irritated my fibro to the point that I was laid out for over a week every month.

I mean, how are you supposed to manage that with three kids?

So you could say that fibro wrecked my plans to have more children, in a sense. It  rearranges my fitness goals and achievements occasionally, and as exercise is my coping mechanism, it may cause for a shit mood or frustration as a result. Fibro may cause my handle time on calls at work to run a bit long and skew my monthly metrics, which may impact my ability to promote within the company. I may even be so tired some days that I pass out suddenly while decompressing with Darrin, and our relationship communication takes a lick. These things definitely require coping, and sometimes, it’s just too much on the day. But, by and large, I have the personal awareness and developed coping skills to handle my mild case well most of the time.

 

And, yet, while fibro does impact my mood and can cause me to feel depressed temporarily, that feeling is not the cause of my second chronic issue- anxiety. It may contribute to it, but it does not cause it. If I were affected to the extent of someone like my mother, the difficulty in coping with that level of impact may perhaps cause mood issues, which is completely valid. No judgment there, because I cannot imagine how exhausting that would be other than comprehending what I’ve seen my mother manage (and well, by the way). To deal with that, or any life situation that is hard to process, let alone accept, takes psychological strength and could cause someone to become ill in the mind.

I could also see how severe and consistent pain or thyroid issues from fibro could set something off neurologically or hormonally that would literally cause depression. It does happen, and I don’t blame those people, either. This is where I feel like there should be some kind of differentiation in phraseology (and there may be one, technically, but I’m just talking and making a personal case for the time being). I don’t feel like it’s fair to say that a physiological state that directly impacts neurotransmitters or hormone levels causing internal instabilities that affect mood gives one a “mental illness.”

The mind is fine. Nothing’s wrong with it.

But there’s a medical situation that is causing misfirings and whacking folks out. Why are we using a term that, right or wrong, carries so much stigma, and with such a heavy hand?

And I have an issue with that stigma anyway- regardless of the cause- because I think it’s unkind, inhumane, and telling of a societal lack of compassion. But that’s a topic for another time.

Why-

Why-

WHY are we judging mental states and capacities so generally?

I feel like there’s a rather large difference between someone who is struggling as an emotional response to an external environment and someone who is uncontrollably impacted psychologically due to medical situations that cause chemical imbalances. The result of both may be depression, anxiety, etc., though one truly is mental and the other is medical. Kudos to psychologists and psychiatrists out there, making that differentiation and prescribing appropriate treatments (meds, counseling, or both), because it’s definitely a slippery slope. But why aren’t the rest of us on this train, too?

 

You may ask, “Lydia, what in God’s name has set you off on this tangent today?”

Good question, reader. As if the previous 1,200 words weren’t enough, here’s some more.

 

As I mentioned above, I struggle, at times, with anxiety. It has impacted me at intervals from a very young age, predating difficult life situations, a fibro diagnosis, contentious high school years…If I think back far enough, the first time I remember having what I would probably attribute to a manifestation of anxiety was in grade school. It’s tough to say, because that might predate coping mechanisms, which may throw it in the ring of an emotional reaction to an external environment. Gets a little gray-area there. But, nonetheless, anxiety has been my friendly foe for quite some time.

It took a while to be able to differentiate between what was addressing a life circumstance and affecting my mood, and what was something I had no control over. This sorting out is where I think society gets stuck and judgmental. We don’t often see these conditions as we would strep throat or chicken pox. Only recently have we developed the technology to monitor firing within the lobes of the brain, but that certainly isn’t broadcast in such a way that we could say in the produce aisle, “Well, bless her heart. Those lit up lobes sure are indicating some chemical imbalances today.” Exacerbated by social media’s tendency to broadcast another person’s life highlight reel, against which we judge our current situation and find it woefully lacking somewhere,  we tend to look at each other and think, “YOLO, bro! Just embrace life and do you and some other shit. Life’s a party, and you’re being a pooper.”

“Mental illness?” You just suck at life. Relax, turn that frown upside down, and let shit go.

Man. We are some Doubting Thomas-es, for sure.

Clearly, I have had my share of emotional situations, and I can openly admit to probably having spent some time in the arena with depression which resulted from life stuff, mismanaged coping mechanisms, and growing pains. I have seen counselors (the good ones of whom are angels on this earth). I have spent time in reflection. I have journaled and prayed and been party to some miracles. These very difficult times have evolved my thinking a great deal, and the benefits of getting through them stack on top of each other to help me with the new trials that present themselves. I like to think this makes me fairly healthy in the mental arena. Very resilient.

Thank you, God, for that grace.

But. I also have chemical imbalances, and when these are not managed, before my cognitive state even registers, my physical state is responding. That’s a fight no amount of yoga or meditation or positive thinking is going to win. To put it in perspective, you cannot meditate away cancer because cancer cells are rapidly reproducing themselves. You cannot see cancer externally in  most cases, but you can note the effects. And then you treat it. The same is true for situations like mine, where a physiological state is causing other issues.

So, I hang out on Lexapro, which is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (or SSRI). This manages the chemicals in my brain, which keeps me in a functional state. I’m not drugged into drooly, happy loopiness. I am correcting a state which I cannot control so that I can control my other responses.

My mind is fine.

My mind is not ill.

My body is bad at chemicals.

 

I am fortunate that my employer is so supportive of managing “mental health,” whether that’s providing financial and human resources for the actual “mind” aspects, coverage of physiological aspects, or time off when finding the balance needs breathing room. Most people don’t have that. In November, given some conversations with my doctor and some quiet time to myself, I was able to set myself to rights, and have done very well since. It is truly rare when, without external stimulus, I feel like I just can’t do life. But even in the event that I just can’t do life, this company has zero hesitation in saying, “Go home. We’ll put some time in for you.”

This week, I have, for no observable reason, had a difficult time with my anxiety. Arguably, I’m under less stress now than I have been for over two years. Some studies say that, at the conclusion of a difficult time period, the body may have one sort of cathartic freak out to close things out. Maybe that’s what it is. I don’t feel like there’s anything in life that needs coping or addressing right now. Faced down a crap load of ugly things, and I’m in a period of respite. Whatever the case may be, my body is unhappy in that I’m having panicky, weepy, weird responses that are not the usual “womanly time” thing.

So I went to my doc. We talked meds. We talked life. Agreed that this is probably a temporary chemical imbalance, possibly tied to fighting off viruses the kids brought home and some fibro junk from the weather. And we left shit alone.

I’m not broken or ill or emotionally struggling.

Apparently, I’m just a little whacked out this week. It happens.

But when it happens, it’s not a personal weakness. Anxiety makes little things into big things, and all the things are too many things. That’s not my fault. As a society, we need to realize that, in a lot of cases, it’s not anyone’s fault. Looking at people like their mind is ill or their character is faulty isn’t just unkind.

It’s scientifically inaccurate.

If a multi-billion dollar company can understand that its employees may be in this situation, or even that their jobs are putting them in the arena wherein they really are battling their mind, why can’t communities understand that? If we can’t empathize, why can’t we sympathize? I realize you can’t bring SSRIs to your neighbor like you can bring soup and tea when they have a cold, but I do feel like it shouldn’t be quite so much of a stretch to grasp this view point. I’m not necessarily advocating for more “special words” to keep people from getting their feelings hurt as much as I’m advocating for grasping the difference in the situations and verbalizing them accordingly.

 

 

And be nice humans, regardless. You never know when the one, random nice thing you decided to say to someone is what gets them through whatever weirdness is going on for the day.

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