This is a difficult subject to talk about, as you can imagine. Mental illness is difficult to cope with, period, especially for those who have no idea how to help. However, mental illness is getting more exposure in our culture and this can only be a good thing. It’s important to talk about. The truth is, a lot of us are struggling with invisible illnesses and battles of some kind. It isn’t weird, it isn’t unusual. But there’s still a lot to overcome when it comes to getting the help and acceptance we need.
I have a confession to make: I have OCD and anxiety. In my comics I play it off as something amusing, and for me, it is. OCD is funny and you have to laugh at it. But in real life, I’m spending a great deal of time hiding from everyone just how much difficulty I’m having. How much time I’m spending doing my rituals or avoiding contamination. How much of my life I’ve just stopped doing because the OCD makes it too much of a hassle. Because I feel too much anxiety. Because feeling contaminated hijacks my every sense until all I can concentrate on is how filthy I feel.
So I’m hiding it. I hide the real reason why I don’t want to go out, or why I’m taking a longer route to get from A to B, or why I’m doing tasks in a certain order. It’s like being an alcoholic who knows they have a problem, but funnels all their energy into hiding it from everyone around them instead. I know I have a problem. But the anxiety that I feel when I think of what will happen when everybody finds out is almost worse than the original anxiety, so I keep it hidden like a dirty secret.
Here’s the thing, and know that when I say this I don’t say it lightly. I know everyone is coming from a place of love and concern when they do this. But often, sufferers of mental (and physical!) illness get blamed for their struggles: You’re not trying hard enough. You’re not thinking positively. You’re just being scared. You’re weak for not being able to give up your addiction. You’re just mopey. You should just take some pills. Why aren’t you trying hard enough? Have you seen enough doctors? Have you tried X or Y treatment? Haven’t you heard about…?
I get it. The path to recovery does take hard work. However, well-meaning and well-intentioned criticism from friends and family is a large part of the reason why we don’t come out to them for help in the first place. I think that so few people understand being meaningfully depressed or anxious or addicted to something, so it’s easy to blame the sufferer for being weak when they’re anything but. I’ve encountered a lot of pressure and subtle micro-aggression from others when they find out about my OCD, as if I’m choosing to be mentally ill and the solution is as easy as popping into the pharmacy and getting a special pill to fix it all. I don’t think anyone truly believes recovery from mental illness is that easy, and yet they still seem to act as if that were the case when they issue well-meaning criticism or judgment about one’s recovery progress. Think about it. Judgment about one’s recovery progress. How is that helpful?
We know that the recovery process for depression involves getting out of bed and facing the world. We know that the recovery process for anxiety and OCD involves facing the things we fear head on. We know that the recovery process for alcoholism involves putting down the bottle. We know that, and yet something stays our hand. Sometimes it’s difficult. But why would we choose to keep drinking or feeling numb or obsessing about contamination when we could simply not do those things, like everyone else? Duh! It’s so easy!
Is it, though? Don’t we all have something we’re afraid to face? Don’t we all have things we avoid? Don’t we all have mistakes we keep making over and over? Your particular behaviors and mistakes may not be attached to the stigma of mental illness (in fact, they may be celebrated by our culture, such as workaholism) but that doesn’t mean you don’t struggle with something. Is it that much of a stretch to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and consider why just stopping may be difficult?
If we could ask for one thing from our friends and family in regards to our invisible illnesses and battles, it would be for patience. Instead of trying to force us into something uncomfortable under the guise of “helping” or using social shame as a form of behavioral management or blaming us for our recovery progress, maybe you could try being a safe space. Help us understand the root feelings we’re dealing with. Encourage us to process those feelings in a safe way. Let us know that it’s okay to struggle with difficult feelings and there’s nothing wrong with that. For me, the less pressure I get from everyone to hide my illness, the less anxiety I feel. And the less anxiety I feel, the less I reach for my security rituals of cleaning and sanitizing. I suspect the same is true for others.
Be kind to others. Be patient and understanding. Help them work through their feelings. Give them a safe space. Let them know there is no judgment with you and that you’ll give them the patience they need. This isn’t to say you’ll sit by idly while they destroy themselves or that you won’t step in when necessary. It’s not to say you’ll indulge unreasonable requests or assist them in self-destruction. It’s just to say that when they need support, you’ll be there encouragingly, and when they make an accomplishment, you’ll be there to celebrate it. You don’t need to blame or judge. Sufferers of mental illness are already doing that to themselves in spades.
Do you have a mental illness or know someone who does? Feel free to share your thoughts!