I used to be the kind of person who would reach out to a neighbour, when times were tough, with a casserole, a note or an offer to help. My sense of connection to friends and family was based on this kind of interaction. I believed it was the right thing to do - to be supportive and helpful when people are in need. It also felt good to be helpful, but there was a problem with my thinking. I also had an expectation the love would be reciprocal. It turns out I gave, with expectations. I figured these people would someday be there for me, should I ever be in need. That is not how it works of course, but I am still learning. I understand we all want to be loved; I just went about finding love, in an insecure way. I came from a place of lack. In retrospect this feeling of lack, was a sign of what was to come next; I got sick, really sick.
I do not have a disease or a broken bone, nor did I suffer the loss of a loved one. My illness is mental. Over the past three years I have been openly dealing with PMDD (Pre-menstrual Dysphoric Disorder), Major Depressive Disorder and Addiction. Prior to three years ago, these issues were my secret and were nearly the end of me. When I decided to let my friends and family know (which is part of the healing process) I was treated, in my opinion, very badly.
And yes, a key part of the problem of depression is ‘my opinion’. People who do not understand mental illness will tell you your opinion is ‘wrong’ or ‘distorted’. Let me please start by sharing with you that this it not true. People with depression are actually more accurate in their perception than people without depression (Andrew Solomon talks about this in his TED TALK) but it is the way this perception affects them that is damaging. Mentally healthier people are more resilient - and this can be for many reasons. None of which make them ‘right’ and the depressed person ‘wrong’. One person actually told me I ‘made up’ a word they had said to me, and my delusion must have been related to my mental illness. In my insecurity, I did not stand up for myself. Depression is not psychosis. Depressed people can hear perfectly. The impact of the words can be very damaging however.
Much of my writing about depression to this point has been from a rather apologetic standpoint. I have enabled the people around me to turn their backs on the mentally ill, to judge and to stigmatize. I don’t feel like doing that anymore. Maybe I am becoming more resilient myself, or maybe I have realized that I do not need to hope that someone else will support me. If this journey has taught me anything, it is that I have the power, love and choice within me, to overcome my illness. In other words, I am not buying anymore love with casseroles.
And no, I have not recoiled out of bitterness and decided never to help anyone ever again. What I have done is shift my energy and attention to the people who I think need the help most. I give my love to the mentally ill and the addicted. I love, the unlovable.
Indeed there are many causes out there worth your attention and mental illness may not be on your radar. But let me share with you a couple of stats from CAMH:
Prevalence - In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental illness or addiction problem. By the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 have—or have had—a mental illness.
Who is affected? - 70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence.
So, I’m not good at stats, but it seems that it is not a case of IF you or a loved one will experience mental illness, but WHEN. My question to you is, how will you deal with it? Will you reach out to a sick person with a casserole? Will you turn your back or judge or squirm with ignorance? Maybe it will be you who gets sick? Will you reach out for help or try to hide your sickness? Will you talk about it or recoil with fear of being stigmatized? When it is your turn, what will you do?