Think of a good day you have had. Your work was challenging but through hard work you gained success. You imagined another successful step down the path of your career and you made it happen. You felt accomplishment and relaxed at the end of the day with friends and/or loved ones. Imagine this day being visually represented as a white card.
Now think about the time when you REALLY didn’t feel like doing something. Something very difficult, that you weren’t good at, had little chance of success, but were forced to do anyway. And you felt doing it would not ultimately benefit you. Now imagine you feel real mental pain as you do this. And once you are done putting in the intense, exhausting effort to complete this task, you feel no sense of reward, no good feelings, no sense of accomplishment. And, you feel no sense of completion of the day’s work. Now imagine that this once-in-a-while-really-bad-day of yours is visually represented by a light gray card.
To some with mental illness it is much worse… every day is a black card day.
Before I had mental illness I had a normal suburban middle class life. If you asked me if I ever had a really bad day I would be able to tell you with conviction that I had suffered bad days, days I didn’t want to do anything, days as bad as anyone’s. But these bad days were qualitatively different from, and quantitatively of less intensity than, my average day of depression.
When someone has a broken leg you can see it, you hold the door for them, you are sympathetic. But mental illness is invisible. The person who struggles looks the same as a healthy person. An analogy that comes to mind is someone who is swimming in a pool and someone who is swimming in transparent wet concrete. The problem is not only the difficulty of swimming in concrete, but the invisible injustice that others are seeing you, and judging you, as if you were swimming in the same water they were.
What are some of the ways “we” experience transparent wet concrete while “you” experience water? There is so much that a healthy functioning brain does that I was not aware of until I didn’t have it. When I was depressed my emotions shut down but I didn’t know it. When I drove my car and the light turned red, my foot did not automatically come off the gas and on to the brake. I thought: “The light is red. I have to stop. Why isn’t my foot coming off the gas?” I had to consciously force my foot to come up and then consciously force my foot to go down on the brake to stop. Everything that used to be automatic was now consciously forced “drudgery”. This is just one of many changes depression made in me; none of them for the better.
Another example of “us” swimming in transparent wet concrete while “you” are swimming in water – is income. Mental illness (many times) lowers income. There is a big difference in how hard it is, how long it takes, how much of the elements you have to face, and how much you can get done in a day when you can only afford public transportation as compared to having your own car. When I am asking someone to pick up their meds, I am thinking of the half hour round trip it takes me to drive-thru my neighborhood pharmacy. Someone else using public transportation may have to wait half an hour in sub-zero wind chill, or rain, or blistering heat, just to catch the first leg of their bus journey to get to the pharmacy. And they may do all of this without the benefit of a healthy brain.
I just do not know the difficulties faced by others, and I do not want to deceive myself into thinking I do. In another analogy, until they experience sight, blind people have no ability to imagine light or color. And, similarly, deaf people don’t know what is really meant by someone referring to sound until they have experienced it. Like them, I have no idea what it is like to experience another’s mental illness. For example, I don’t know what it is like to hear audible voices (that no one else hears). I myself deal with malicious emotions that tell me I am worthless, to give up, it’s no use to try to do this job, etc. But they are feelings not audible voices. And though I might think I know a little of what they are going through, I really need to talk to them and not assume their experience is similar to mine. I suggest to you that until you experience severe depression you have no idea how deep that pit is, how black it is, and how steep the walls are. And you may have no idea how hard it is to survive it, much less get out of it.
Yet even though you haven’t experienced it, you care. And I wildly applaud you for spending your one and only precious life on this earth investing in our good. You could be making more money, with better hours, and less unpaid overtime, doing much more pleasant activities. But you choose to use your strength to lift us up. I know from experience how hard it is to be mentally ill, and yet some of you have more compassion and give more effort than I do to help heal those whose wounds you can’t even see. Much of the time you work without the world’s applause, (which it reserves for those who have truly noteworthy contributions to make – like highly paid professionals who put a bouncy ball through a metal ring; aka basketball ;>). For those who cannot or will not, let me sincerely say thank you for caring about us and for putting that caring into action. You will never know this side of heaven what you have meant to those of us who desperately needed your help.
You care and you act on that caring so I am not asking you to cry boo hoo for those of us who have dealt with, or are dealing with, mental illness. What I am asking though, is that you consider the possibility that others experience life intrinsically different than you. An experience of life that makes some of the easiest tasks that others do each day – and take for granted – very, very difficult for us. And if you feel this difficult life is possible, grant us patience in proportion to the difficulty you believe we face.
The preceding was written originally for mental health clinicians to both provide a glimpse of what some of us mentally ill experience every day and to thank them for caring enough about us to do a difficult and sometimes thankless job.