on the misnomer of “mentally ill”

meBefore I say anything else, I’ll claim it: I deal with mental illness. I’m not embarrassed by that, or ashamed of it, and I don’t think it means I’m weak, or broken, or less-than anyone in the world. This simply is, in the same way that I am tall, I have blue eyes, and my smile is gummy. All that simply is. (That doesn’t mean I’ve always been accepting of and happy about those things, except the blue eyes, but they’re all true whether I am happy and accepting of them or not. They simply are true of me.)

But I do very much take issue with two things: the idea that this relates to weakness or brokenness, and the terminology. I assume this was first termed “mental” illness to contrast it with “physical” illness — as if those are discrete, non-overlapping islands of experience — but my own experience, and the experiences of others I know, relate more to a framing as an emotional or psychological illness. I’m not sure what bugs me so much about framing all these struggles as mental illness, exactly, but I do think it’s the apparent separation from physical, which is mystifying, and also that it just drifts too far away from the experience, which then means people are on the wrong track when they try to understand others.

If I told you I suffer with an emotional illness, what would you ask me? Are you sad? Are you anxious? Are you scared? Do you feel despair? Do you feel like it’s too hard? Those questions get right at the nub of it, don’t they? Yes, when my depression is with me again, I am sad, and scared, and I feel despair, and like it’s too hard. When I answer those questions you understand something about me. I could also tell you that my brain chemicals are wacky, but what do you do with that, exactly? That’s a potential treatment approach that a doctor might help me with, but it doesn’t tell anyone anything.

And then there are other kinds of emotional/psychological illness, some of which I also deal with but have learned to keep closer to my chest because they are too frequently misunderstood. I’m not being cagey about them, and again I don’t think they mean I am broken or weak or less-than anyone, but they require more careful language and much more careful listening (and frankly, it’s the more-careful listening that’s the biggest problem). I’m talking here about different kinds of psychosis, for example, some of which are transient, some of which are nevertheless understood by the person in the midst of the experience, and some of which are devastating and debilitating, like the real tragedy of schizophrenia. People are starting to talk more openly about psychosis, and if you don’t know her already, Elyn Saks is an extraordinary woman with schizophrenia that roared forward while she was a student at Yale. Her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, is exceptionally good at letting you see that illness from the inside, and her TED talk will leave you amazed. I saw her speak in NYC and with the rest of the audience, listened with my mouth open, in amazement.

But even more than my wish that these experiences were called “emotional illness” instead of “mental illnesses,” I wish they were conceptualized differently. They do not mean that we are broken. They do not mean that we are weak. They certainly don’t mean we are less than anyone else who does not have these experiences. Having these experiences simply means that we have these struggles, these painful experiences, these difficulties to deal with. Maybe they become so debilitating that it’s hard to keep a job, but much more often they simply mean that we suffer, and we too often feel all alone with that suffering. I hate that. I won’t draw the kinds of parallels that people usually draw with a physical illness (most often to diabetes or cancer, both of which people are also blamed for, at times….), but I will say that the suffering is real. If you know that someone you love is suffering and you dismiss it, well, you might want to examine that a little bit.

I do suffer. Partly I suffer even without emotional illness because I feel everything so intensely, and because I truly think that to live my life the best way I possibly can, that’s what I’m here to do. I’m not here just to deeply experience the “happy” bits, and to shunt off all the rest as quickly as I can. I’m definitely not here to take the position that well, that doesn’t serve me so I won’t feel it. I think it all serves us, and deepens us, and allows us to grow and learn more about who we are. And so I suffer when my experience is painful. AND I suffer quite terribly from periodic and chronic depression, and sometimes from suicidality. AND I suffer from PTSD, which also includes some strange experiences I’ll write about one of these days. And you know what? Not only do I reject anyone’s notion that therefore I’m weak, I instead say (with a bit of a fuck-you attitude) that actually, I’m stronger than most people I know. I’m strong enough to go there. I’m strong enough to come back. I’m strong enough to stand there and look at it in the face. I’m strong enough to go from here to there:

Yep. Strong enough to go from there to there and back again, strong enough to endure and get richer, and sometimes just strong enough to survive it. Strong enough not to be broken by the pain and sorrow and struggle. It’s the opposite of weak to sit inside that suffering, man, and anyone who has ever been there will give a very loud AMEN to that.

Can I get an amen on that up in here?
Can I get an AMEN on that up in here?

7 thoughts on “on the misnomer of “mentally ill””

  1. …and a shame that people talk around the language rather than the thing itself. If you rail against the term mentally ill you will be less likely to accept help that you may well need. NB this is not based on evidence of any kind. It’s just the vibe i get. Which makes this a genuine blog comment. Xx

  2. I’m giving you a big AMEN! Some days are so hard…just so hard to get through that I think about my bed a lot. For a long, long time I thought I was very weak. That I was not strong enough to drag myself up and out of the funk I was in. And it is a lonely place to be even if there are people surrounding you. A therapist finally told me that I was one of the strongest women she knew. I had a successful marriage and 3 fine children and I could take a lot of satisfaction in that. Well, hell! Who knew? I sure didn’t. I see myself now as a strong woman. I got here by force of will. Of course, I am still that sad little girl inside and fight against that every damn day. The trouble with saying and telling people you have a mental illness is that there is still such a stigma attached to that and really…so many kinds of mental illness. I don’t bring it up much. There aren’t so very many people who know what I suffer from. They don’t need to know. They can think I’m a little odd or a little goofy. I don’t care. I have been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety. I am on meds. I am 5’5″ and am about 15 pounds overweight. I knit. I paint. I sew. I garden. I love my family with all my heart. I just feel the earth vibrate some days. I love you because you talk about this even though I don’t. I can understand you and you can understand me. And yes, it is the opposite of weak to sit inside the suffering. You are one strong broad. 😉 Thank you for putting your feelings into words. xoxoxoxox

    1. Yes, my dear sister from another-difficult-mother. Yes. I understand you and you understand me and I’m so grateful inside that. Our sad girls see each other, and our happy girls see each other too. AMEN to the force of will, amen hell yeah. xoxoxoxoxoxo

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