If you’ve ever put your foot in your mouth around someone with a mental illness, this one’s for you, friend. (Disclaimer: These are not my personal gripes. I took a poll on Facebook looking for common things that people with a mental illness get told. These aren’t directed at anyone specific out there who might have said one of these, I promise.)
Hmmm, where to start. I think with the guy who, after I had told him I had OCD, told me that he LOVED hiring “those people” in his business because they were so organized and meticulous. When I tried to stop him, he went on: “That’s a great quality to have, man, in the right scenario!” I chose not to physically harm him, but I wanted to. I just seethed because it was so invalidating: him saying that this disorder which has taken so much life from me is actually an enviable quality in the workplace. You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer that they would make a great hat salesman what with the bald head and all, would you? Yeah, so please don’t say that sort of thing to someone who’s mentally ill.
Then there’s the good natured, rampant suggestions that those of us with mental illnesses should focus more on our physical health: exercise more, eat more barley, try the latest cleanse, quit eating cheese pizza that uses GMOHGTLMNOP in the sauce, etc. A few years ago, my boss pulled this one on me very unexpectedly. I went into his office to talk about who knows what – NOT mental health. Somehow the conversation meandered around to anxiety, from which he also suffered. But his was the sort that one can get rid of by running around the block. So, kindly, he suggested that I should exercise more regularly. I thanked him, told him I’d give it a shot, and ran…to McDonald’s. Okay, I had two. Then I slashed his tires. But really, I’m quite sure that physical health has plenty to do with mental health. However, I have yet to find someone who is severely mentally ill who has been cured by running a marathon. Most of us have tried that to no avail (for the record, I’ve gone through prolonged periods of exercising many times a week, but I’ve never seen an improvement in my mental health from it). It’s not that we don’t know that you exercisers mean well; it’s just that it feels like you’re telling an amputee that taking fish oil might turn them into a mermaid/merman, thus effectively replacing their legs.
And here’s one that all of us who have been depressed have probably heard: “Just think of all you have going for you! You’ve got this and this and this and this to be thankful for. You’re looking at it all wrong!” When I was suffering from my worst (and first) bout of depression ever, I was basically on suicide watch. I didn’t even feel safe being in a different room of the house from my family. During this time, a friend of mine thought he’d do me a favor by suggesting how much worse off I could be. He shared with me about his friend who was currently in Hawaii. Well, good for him, I thought. Then he shared the reason: his daughter was dying of cancer and it was her Make-a-Wish request. Surprisingly, this did not help with my suicidal depression. In fact, it heightened the urge to find that cyanide pill I had hidden somewhere. If you take nothing else away from this post, try to remember this: mental illness is not about someone’s unwillingness to see things in a positive light…or the “right” light. It’s about THEIR INABILITY to do so. Depressed people are fully capable of understanding that something should make them happy. But they still can’t feel happy. Anorexic people are just as aware as you are what an appropriate meal consists of. But their brains won’t let them act on that knowledge. People with OCD know their obsessions are idiotic. But that’s all they think about, night and day, until, sometimes, they end their lives to make the unwanted thoughts stop. Think of it this way: People who are paralyzed understand how walking works, and they most likely want to walk. But they can’t. A pathway is broken, and we simply don’t know how to fix it just yet.
This last one (for now…there’s plenty more out there) is tricky because it’s been said to me so many times by so many really, really, really thoughtful and well-meaning people. But still, it’s warped. Here it is (well-meaning friend speaking to me): “Ann (my wife) must really be a saint, Tim.” First of all, these people are absolutely right: she is a saint. Ask anyone who knows her; she’s probably the best human on earth. I mean that whole-heartedly. I wrote in my book five years ago that I would’ve left me a long time ago, so let me just say that first. So what’s so wrong with saying that, then? Well, would you say it to someone with cancer whose spouse stayed with him even though it was a terrible road to walk? You might say it to the spouse in private, and that would indeed be appropriate encouragement. But you wouldn’t say it to the cancer patient because that would make him feel like shit, obviously. You might as well say, “Dude, you’re a fucking burden.” On this one, we mentally ill folks don’t even help ourselves because I think most of us feel like a burden and even push our loved ones away so as not to be a burden on them. I know I do that a lot. I feel ashamed and worthless when I can’t earn as much money as I used to or help as much with the kids as I’d like to. Still, please, I beg you, don’t tell me what a saint my wife is unless you want to make me (and others) feel like a pile of maggot diarrhea. Tell our spouses, our parents, our friends what saints they are. Just don’t tell us.
As I finish this post, I feel a bit like a jerk for pointing these things out. I was hoping for a funny tone but fear I’ve landed more on derisive. Take me with a grain of salt, though. Remember, I’m just a mentally ill guy who’s not doing a good job of thinking happy thoughts (oops, was that derisive, too?). Oh well, if you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me as I try to make this point. And if I’ve offended you, now you can write a post called Things Not to Say to Someone Who’s Just Trying to Help. Be sure to tag me so I can read it!
Other things that I don’t have the time or energy to address right now:
- I’m praying for you.
- I’m a little OCD, too.
- You shouldn’t cut yourself because you won’t like those scars on your arms.
- Please add more in the comments section below!
EXCITING NEWS: Tim’s new podcast called, cleverly, To Know We Are Not Alone, is now available on this site or on iTunes.
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