Typically family members will be the first ones to learn of a loved one’s mental illness. Living day to day with people, it becomes hard to hide certain parts of one’s self. Sometimes, out of desperation for help, people will either confide in those close to them or act in a way that makes it obvious (starvation, cutting, severe mood swings, etc.). Other times, people will try to hide it as best they can, or, as in my case, they don’t even realize they have a mental disorder.
I didn’t know that obsessively counting calories and restricting was a mental disorder. Nor did I know that about my anxiety or depression. But eventually it broke me. Living with constant mental battles wears one down in a way that nothing else can. As I’ve become more vocal about my invisible disabilities (depression, anxiety, and anorexia), I’ve found that people typically respond in one of three ways: 1) they disregard it; 2) they pathologize me; 3) they empathize.
The “disregarding” crowd are perhaps worse than the pathologizing ones. Do not diminish or ignore someone’s mental illness. Even if they haven’t confided in you, but you suspect something, believe that what is going on inside their mind is very, very real–even if it does not make sense to you. Chances are, it won’t. If you do not have a mental disorder (or are uninformed about them), it will seem like something made-up, a hobby for the self-centered. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. So if you find yourself falling into this group, try starting from a place of belief rather than doubt.
I have encountered the pathologizing horde the most–especially in the church. Rather than being viewed as a strong, “healthy” Christian, I become a fragile, sick individual. The “how are you” greetings are often code for “are you eating/sleeping/not worrying/wanting to be dead, etc.” And, the worst part, for me anyway, is when people who have never talked to me in my life, but I have seen quite regularly for years, feel the need to give me a hug and say “I’m here for you”–both out of guilt and pity. Comments like this, especially if I’m having a “good” day, can send me spiraling. If you find yourself in this group, my advice is to remember (or perhaps, get to know in the first place) all of the things about that person that aren’t their mental disorder.
Finally, you find those who empathize with you. And when that happens, it makes all the other encounters less difficult. It gives you hope that eventually they might come to empathize, too. If enough people are being vocal, willing to help end the stigma, I believe this to be inevitable. And that gives me strength. Since starting this blog, I’ve learned of so many people’s personal struggles, or of their loved ones who have mental disorders. And for many of you, this is new territory. It is not new because it is just now appearing. It is new because the church community isn’t talking about it like they should.
Thank you for helping to change that.
If you have a story about mental illness—whether personal or concerning a loved one—please consider sharing your experience. Even if you aren’t at a place yet where you feel comfortable disclosing your name, the church body needs your voice. Let’s shine a light on the darkness, together.