I have Crohn’s disease. At times, my intestines are all out of whack. It even affects my eyes! If I tell someone that my stomach is bothering me, they get it. When I did a fundraiser for Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, many people donated.
When I tell people I also have bipolar disorder that is accompanied by severe anxiety and my brain just completely short circuits sometimes, people don’t get it. When I have done fundraisers for mental illness awareness or suicide prevention, I got far fewer donations.
Why is my physical illness so much more acceptable? People aren’t scared of that. People don’t think I’m making it up. People don’t think I’m exaggerating. They don’t tell me to calm down or just relax. Is diarrhea and gas really more acceptable to discuss than my thoughts and emotions? That’s what it feels like sometimes. People seem to have a vision in their head of what certain mental illnesses look like. Bipolar means you are either curled up in bed or swinging from chandeliers and spending thousands of dollars. I don't fit that description. Anxiety is just nervousness that everyone gets sometimes. Of course, that is not reality.
So if someone tells you about their struggles with a mental illness, what should you do?
1. Don’t get nervous and worry about what to say. I am not looking for you to fix me or provide solutions. I need to talk to someone, so just listen. Be honored that I trust you enough to share my thoughts with you.
2. Ask questions. Asking about what I'm going through just shows you care and are trying to understand. I would much rather explain something to you than have you assume the wrong thing.
3. Don’t judge us based on the stereotypes you have in your head. Just because great aunt Milly had bipolar disorder and acted a certain way doesn’t mean we all are the same. Every person has a different experience. Remember that most pictures of mental illness are created by the extremes depicted in the media. Often reality is very different. There is no "look" or mold that you need to fit in order to have a mental illness.
4. Please don’t tell me what I should do to feel better. Do yoga, take a class, exercise, go for a walk, paint, take pictures, write … the list goes on. Chances are, the majority of people with a mental illness know exactly what they ‘should’ do, but our brains are not cooperating with us. Saying what I should do only makes me feel like I'm doing something wrong or not trying hard enough; like the way I am is my fault. If my Crohn’s disease gives me stomach pain, would you tell me that I just need to do yoga or paint? Don’t minimize the severity of the struggle.
5. Don’t treat me differently. Deep down, underneath the shell of depression, bursts of anger or periods of elation, I'm still the person you know and love, but sometimes I need time and a bit of help to get back to my best. One of my biggest fears is losing the important people in my life, so when darkness strikes and I turn into a version of myself that I don’t like, I’m convinced everyone will run away. If you truly care, say so and remind me that you will be there even when I'm not at my best.
6. Try not to take it personally. Many people experience bursts of anger and agitation. Words might fly out of our mouths before we think about the consequences. This doesn’t excuse the behavior or take away hurt feelings caused by those outbursts, but remember that anger can be a symptom of both depression and mania/hypomania. Don’t engage in an argument and wait for a calm moment to have a discussion.
7. Little gestures mean a ton. In December, my best friend sent me a belated birthday card with a Starbucks gift card in it. Not only was the card filled with kind words, but the gift card was like giving me gold. Treating myself to a fancy coffee gave me a short escape and made me smile. You don’t need to buy things; doing something like cooking a meal or folding a basket of laundry for me would be like winning the lottery on those tough days.
8. As much as I probably don’t want to hear it and I might roll my eyes, remind me that I will feel better again. Remind me what I have to fight for. Remind me of my strength. I might not believe you at the time because it seems impossible, but it’s good to be reminded.