It’s been a rough week here. Lots of time to just sit and … think. Generally, I like thinking – it got me through college and to where I am now, after all. But when I think too much, sometimes bad things start to happen.
I like to think of the Bad Thoughts as a separate entity. If I envision this entity, it looks like me, sweet-faced and innocent, but with one heck of a mean streak. She’ll sit by my side and poke at me, trying her best to whisper in my ear. She’s never very loud, but she never stops. If I’m tired, bored, or sick, and my guard starts to slip, I have no choice but to hear her.
What she kept telling me this week was: remember all the times you weren’t enough?
Remember when enemies, loved ones, and medical professionals alike looked at you, at the amount of pain you were in, and decided you weren’t hurting enough to warrant their concern and time?
I don’t think what happened to you is enough to warrant PTSD. You overreacted.
Your distress is inconvenient to me. It’s not enough to make me worried instead of angry.
You always snap out of it eventually. As long as you’re not in physical danger, you’re not struggling enough for me to help you.
And to an extent, she’s right. All those people who pushed me away to sink or swim were right. I’m healthy and strong. No longer constantly engaging in those self-destructive tendencies that caused my physical body to become a reflection of my mental state. When there are limited mental health resources … as there are in this country … someone who is physically unstable should receive priority over someone who is stable, always.
But that’s the unfortunate thing. My level of functioning is currently high enough that I’m not visibly sick, but low enough that I still fight those self-destructive thoughts every. Day. I fight not to hear that other-me, but she’s still there, watching and waiting for the moment I let my guard down.
I don’t cry anymore. Not really, not like I used to. Enough people have rolled their eyes and walked away, or gotten angry at me for crying and being dramatic, or simply left me to cry myself out, that I have no choice but to suppress those emotional outbursts as best I can. But my affect is more stable for the same reason that I don’t engage in self-destructive behavior … I’m afraid of the consequences.
Is that really recovery? No. I don’t think so. At best, it’s a stopgap measure, allowing me to function – mostly – in the short term.
One of the problems with mental illness is that, well, it’s internal. No one really knows how much you’re struggling until you tell them. And when you do tell them, you’re making yourself incredibly vulnerable, trusting that they will believe you and act compassionately.
Except … except that doesn’t always happen. Older generations might tell you to suck it up and power through, because that’s what they were taught. Among my own generation, I think our first instinct is still to deflect and minimize the person’s suffering (e.g. “You’re not really suicidal, you just think that right now”) or to simply feel uncomfortable and ignore the person, perhaps labeling them unstable or toxic.
Which makes sense, really. When I seek help from lay people – even the kindest and most compassionate people I know – in the middle of an episode, I imagine it would be similar to approaching someone with no medical training while waving a massive bleeding cut around.
“I need help,” says the bleeding person.
“Y-yeah, I see that …” says the person they approached, who is maybe starting to feel a little nauseous and panicky because hello, giant bleeding wound. “What do you need me to do?”
“I don’t know,” says the hurt person. “I’m just in a lot of pain and can’t think clearly.”
“Uh, maybe you could go lie down … over there … and elevate your injury?” the other person stammers.
Person #1 does so. Maybe they go to the doctor (like they should); maybe the wound stops bleeding on its own and starts to heal. Either way, the message – intentional or not – from the other person is the same:
I wasn’t hurt enough.
So what can we do? How can we, myself included, make ourselves better allies for those who may seek our help?
- Realize that people react differently to the same situations. Just because you don’t find something stressful or upsetting doesn’t mean that someone else won’t. Likewise, if something is disturbing to you, it probably won’t be disturbing to everyone else. Give someone the benefit of the doubt if you feel they’re overreacting to something.
- Know your own limits. At the end of the day, most of us are just normal people who probably want to help, but don’t really know how. Someone who is really struggling may have the ability to drag you underwater with them, especially if you’ve had similar issues in the past and are now mostly recovered. It’s OK to tell someone that you don’t feel like you can give them what they need, but you’ll help them find someone who can.
- Don’t turn away. If we all made more of an effort to help people when they were at the “annoying”/”toxic” stage, maybe less people would get to the “seriously mentally/physically ill” stage. Just some thoughts …
If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading my little debriefing session.
And if you, too, are inwardly struggling and outwardly looking fine:
Your struggle is valid.
Your emotions are real.
You are “hurting enough,” and I honestly, absolutely care about you …
But you are also strong enough, resourceful enough, and determined enough to keep fighting the Bad Thoughts and working towards a brighter future, one day, one hour, one minute at a time.
You can do this.
We can do this together.