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October 5, 2014 | by  | in Online Only | [ssba]

It has to be said

I don’t believe in mental illness.
Well apart from like Down syndrome and stuff. I mean those are legitimate disabilities, right? What I meant to say is that I don’t believe in like depression, anorexia or ADHD. You know those ‘mental illnesses’.
Thoughts and feelings are something you control. You choose to be happy. You choose to see the good. You choose not to let the bad get you down. Eating is something you choose to do. Your temper is something you choose to control. And anyone who says otherwise is just weak. They say they have a problem but really everyone does. What makes them any different? Diagnoses are a cop out. Labels are an excuse. Life’s a bitch. Deal with it and move on.
They’re attention seekers, the lot of them.
That’s what she said as the door closed behind us. She had smiled and nodded at the time. She’d ‘hmmed’ and ‘haad’ in all the right places. A model student, she’d raised her hand and responded as expected. But when the door was closed and he could hear no longer, she turned. She was scornful. She was spurning. She rejected him and everything he’d said.
And it filled me with shame.
You see I was one of those people. I had been diagnosed with anorexia and depression. I was mentally ill.
But she didn’t know that.
And for good reason apparently, for she was type 1: the non-believer.
Type 1 believes it’s a choice, a selfish choice that could be so easily fixed if you’d only step up and face your problems. This is the type that speaks of starving children in Africa, the emaciated in India. They judge families, condemn ‘failing’ parents, and scorn the diagnosed. They yell when you start to cry, slam the door when you reach out for help. They ‘re angry. They won’t listen.
Then there’s type 2: the fearful.
When I was hospitalised, I didn’t have many visitors. I put this down to few people knowing, at least at first. But as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, I gave up on that excuse. I knew the news was spreading. News like that travels fast. So when you don’t hear from the friends you thought you would, when your closest mates never show up, you come to realise that maybe it’s because they don’t want to. Maybe they’re choosing not to.
Maybe they’re afraid.
Type 2 doesn’t know how to respond. They don’t know what to say. They don’t know what to think when they see your frail body, your empty eyes. They can’t deal with the drama so they stay away and pretend it doesn’t exist.
If only you could do the same.
Finally type 3: the tryers.
In some ways type 3 are the worst kind. The anger you can deal with. The fear you can understand. But the ones with good intentions, they’re the ones that hurt the most. Type 3 make the most effort yet do the most damage. They try to help but go about it all wrong so end up making things worse. You know they’re trying and you know they’d hate to think they were making things harder, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are and that it’d almost be easier if they just gave up on you like everyone else.
Types 1, 2 and 3 represent the common responses to ”coming out” as it were. This might explain why so few sufferers speak up. You see, no matter the type, each response makes you feel different, abnormal. Whether they run, or fight, or try to help. Whether they walk on eggshells or throw their weight around with reckless abandon. The result is the same. You feel like an alien. You’re not “Sam”, but “Sam the anorexic”. You’re not “Sarah”, but “Sarah who’s depressed”. You are defined by your illness, and that’s all you are anymore.
So you keep quiet.
You’d be surprised how many people do this. Since being diagnosed I’ve met more and more people like me. Having experienced it first hand, it’s easy to pick out in others. That girl you think is naturally skinny? Chances are she’s not. That boy who never seems to smile? Yeah, he’s been on anti-depressants for 3 years now.
They keep quiet because they’re ashamed. They’re scared of being different. These illnesses often stem from an inherent insecurity, an implicit sense of inadequacy. When speaking up risks further alienation, further proof of your ineptitude, it’s easier to just say nothing.
Silent suffering is a huge problem. Recovery is incredibly difficult, especially when doing it alone. A sound support group can mean the difference between recovering and not. In some cases, it can even mean the difference between life and death – it did for me. But the difficulty is that even when people want to help, they simple don’t know how.
How can you help without becoming one of these types? How do you offer your support in a way that encourages sufferers to speak up? How can you earn their trust and their confidence?
The first step comes with understanding.
The misconstrued belief that mental illness is a decision is a huge barrier to being supportive. In order to help, one much first understand. If you don’t know what’s wrong then how can you fix it? If you believe it’s a choice then how can you be compassionate or empathetic? How can you know what to say, what to do, when you have no idea what they’re thinking or feeling?
This issue is a hard one to solve because everyone’s journey is unique. It’s a falsehood to claim that you understand all mental illnesses. You couldn’t possibly understand what every sufferer is going through because every one of them is experiencing something different. The symptoms may be the same but the thought processes behind these are not and ultimately, it is these thoughts that drive the symptoms.
For me, depression isn’t just being sad. It’s being empty. It’s no emotion. It’s a world void of life or meaning. It’s not just tired of doing things, but tired of being things. It’s tired of living. It’s tired of pretending. It’s tired of saying you’re ok, when you’re not. Depression is hating yourself. It’s hating all you are and all you could possibly be. Depression is darkness. There is no bright future. There’s only now, and now is nothing, and nothing is it. Forever.
Anorexia is the physical emptiness that replaces your emotional void. It’s the distraction. It’s the clouded wall of malnutrition and physical weakness that means you no longer have the strength to care, to think. It’s the silencing of all thoughts. It condenses all fears and insecurities into one: food. Anorexia is debilitating phobia. Instead of the spider, it’s the chocolate bar. Instead of meters above the ground, it’s kilograms on the scales. Anorexia is control, or at least the illusion of it. In reality it’s subordination. You are a slave to the voice inside your head, the voice that calls you a failure and claims that’s all you’ll ever be.
Anorexia is depression. At least for me. Which just goes to show how experiences differ for (generally) the two are considered very separate illnesses.
Hence why you must listen – my first piece of advice.
Ask me what I’m thinking. Ask me why I’m crying. Ask me how you can help or make things easier for me. Listen to what I say and take note because this will determine what actions you should take. Maybe I need you to force me to eat. Or maybe I don’t. Maybe I want you to get me to get out of bed, or maybe I’d prefer you leave me rest. What is certain is that I want to be heard. Don’t make me feel stupid when I tell you the truth. Don’t make me feel abnormal when I tell you what I’m thinking. Listen to me, accept me, and accept that you might not get it right all the time. And that’s ok. You don’t need to understand it completely, but it means the world that you’re willing to try.
Don’t talk about my weight.
And not just weight, don’t mention anything about how or what I’m eating. I don’t want to hear that I’m looking “better” or “healthier”. I don’t want to know that I’m visibly getting bigger. I don’t want to be congratulated for eating a chocolate bar, or turning up to lunch. I’m already self-conscious about it and mentioning it will only make it worse. I don’t want a huge fuss to be made out of meal times. When you say it’s a ‘big deal’, it becomes a big deal and what was already a hard decision suddenly became an impossible one. Your making a deal of it only reaffirms the voice in my head that’s calling me fat, or inadequate, or whatever insult it is.
Don’t yell at me.
Remember that I’m already ashamed. I already feel bad. I’m already horrified that you know, that I’ve let down my guard, that I’ve revealed my inherent inadequacy. Yes, there are starving children out there. Yes, some people have it worse that I do. I know all these things, but I can’t just turn my thoughts and feelings around. I can’t just turn it off. Recovery takes time and your yelling at me won’t change that. Yelling only exacerbates the situation, which isn’t helpful for anyone.
Don’t treat me like I’m different.
I’m still here. I’m still me. I can still hear you when you talk about me like I’m not in the room. I can see you looking at me different. I can hear the strain your voice. Stop walking on eggshells; I’m not about to break. Crack a joke every now and then and I might just laugh. Or maybe I won’t, but that doesn’t mean I won’t appreciate the effort. I appreciate that you’re treating me normally. I’m not some alien. I’m me. If you treat me like I’m different, how can I ever hope to be the same again?
Don’t use the label.
‘Anorexic’ is not a pronoun, ‘depressed’ is not a name. There is more to me than this illness, so don’t label me as if that’s all I am. If you label me as such, then I will start to believe it and if I believe it, then how am I meant to get over it? What will be left when I recover? If my illness defines me, then who am I without it? I have anorexia; I am not ‘Anorexic’. I suffer from depression; I am not ‘Depressed’. These titles are not my name, they are not who I am. There is a me beyond all this, so don’t bar it away behind the labels.
Be there.
If I’m perfectly honest, there is no one right thing to do. Everyone’s experience is unique, and everyone responds in different ways. What might be the kick-start for some could be a kick in the stomach for others. What might be the turning point for one could be the shortfall for another. You’re going to get it wrong sometimes, but the fact that you’re there makes it all ok.
I lied before when I said type 3 were the worst. They’re not. They’re the best. Even in your malnourished, emotionless condition, you can see the goodness in their heart and you know they mean well. Most of the time you can overlook the poorly phrased advice. Most of the time you can get past the weight comments that had meant to serve as encouragement. Just knowing that someone cares enough to stick it out, is enough to make you feel that you’re worth something. You’re not nothing anymore. There are people who care. You’re not alone. You’re wanted, you’re needed, you’re special. You’re worth saving and you deserve to get better.
If there’s one thing you take from this piece, this is it: Just Be There.
The more people that are there, the more worthy you feel. The more people who care, the more likely you are to believe that you are not inadequate, that you don’t need to be skinnier, you don’t need to be different, you don’t need to be anything more that what you are. Your life isn’t that bad. You’re not as alone as you thought.
Convince me. Convince me that you care. Convince me that life will get better, that I will get better, that I deserve to get better.
And when you have me convinced, I will no longer feel ashamed. Only then will I truly be able to recover.


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