Because of more and more celebrities being open and sharing their struggles with mental illness, the stigma is perhaps slightly less severe than in the past. However the misunderstanding of mental illnesses and their symptoms endures. When well-known figures talk about their illness, they do so when they’re well. Their stylists have carefully done their hair and make up, and helped them select their clothes, so they look their absolute best. No unwashed hair, sweat pants and pajama tops for them. Every detail is carefully orchestrated so that as they announce their illness, everything about them screams, “But don’t worry about me. See how fine I am. I’m still the star you’ve known. Don’t stop worshiping me, because I can’t afford to lose my status as a box office star.”
So, perhaps, people won’t fear us quite as much when they learn of our diagnosis, but they will still hold us to the same standards as any well person: smiles on our faces, cheerful attitudes, perfect attendance at work and full participation in social activities. We should be excellent housekeepers, good cooks, fit and, above all, disciplined.
We are held to the standards of healthy people with no allowance for our illness. Consider an individual with cancer. If he or she chooses to stay in bed and sleep to attempt to escape the pain awhile longer, housemates tiptoe around to ensure no one disturbs him or her. However, when someone with clinical depression is simply unable to get out of bed, we’re considered lazy and undisciplined. Why? Because mental illness is still seen as “all in the head,” no pun intended. In other words, if we would just make better choices, we could lead perfectly normal lives. The paradox is that people tend to be afraid of us if we let them know we have bipolar disorder or DID, but if we don’t run around leaping around the room and screeching like chimpanzees, we’re considered healthy. The general public doesn’t get the “illness” part of mental illness.
Some people with bipolar disorder, DID, borderline personality disorder, narcissistic disorder and other disorders are able to function pretty normally most of the time. They can hold down jobs and be active socially. Many others simply cannot no matter how hard they try. They wish they could. Most of them have tried and were either forced to quit or were fired. Either way, their self esteem undoubtedly took a serious nose dive, and they had to use every bit of energy they possessed to claw their way out of the depressive hole they fell into as a result.
Understanding friends are few. Most adults have, at some point in their lives, had a bad case of the blues, so they think they understand what it means to be truly depressed. Thus, they wonder why we can’t pull ourselves out if it as they did. You may have talked, explained, shown, shared books, even taken them to your therapist with you. But most still refuse to accept the reality of the severity of the symptoms we live with every day. Loneliness ensues, compounding our feelings of isolation and unworthiness. We begin to doubt ourselves. Are we really just lazy and undisciplined? We may set more goals and promise ourselves that this time, we’ll carry through. This time we’ll be like other people who can follow through and consistently discipline themselves to reach their goals. And again, depression, dissociation or a manic phase steal our physical, mental and emotional strength, and, in our eyes, we fail again.
The truth is, however, that we haven’t failed. We have simply been unable to live up to unrealistic expectations – our own and those of others. We have to accept that most of the people we love and who we thought loved us don’t understand; they just don’t get it. We must be careful to cherish those who get it and offer support when we need it, who encourage us when we’re down and who hold us accountable when we’re feeling sorry for ourselves. Very few people earn that kind of trust, and they must earn it. We can accept the input of people who have proven, over time, that they love us no matter what. They love us whether we get out of bed or stay there with the covers pulled over our head. They love us whether our house is clean or the place is a wreck. They understand that when our minds are disorganized, so are our surroundings. They don’t criticize when we miss church yet again. They understand the difference between what we want to be and what we’re able to be. They listen when we’re hurting and celebrate with us when we get back to the selves we want to be, the selves that can reciprocate their friendship.
I have learned to expect criticism. That doesn’t mean it hurts any less, but at least it’s not a surprise. Still, sometimes, I let my guard down and start to trust someone who I think has proven him/herself worthy, and my heart takes a blow when they let me down. Those occasions make me wonder why I bothered to trust. That’s when my self-talk says, “Haven’t you learned? Don’t you know better than to trust? How could you be so stupid?” And my self-esteem takes another blow. Then I have to take a deep breath and remind myself of the truth about myself and the person who let me down. Perhaps he/she is a real friend in some ways but not others. I have learned over time that few people get “me” – that is all of me. I have friends who I have lots of fun with, but I know they don’t want to share any of the burdens with me. I have friends who are understanding to a point, but they don’t get my illness. Then I have friends who love me with all my stuff. Those people understand me and love me just the same. Those are the ones with whom I trust my heart. They have earned it. We just have to use our wisdom to know when it’s safe to share our hearts.
We have to know what we are capable of achieving and what we are not. We must always strive to be our best but not beat ourselves up and accuse ourselves of laziness when our goals were simply out of reach – at least for now. We have to learn how to have thick skin, while keeping our hearts tender. We must understand that most people cannot understand what they have not experienced. And, most of all, we must, when possible, be faithful friends to them and give them the love and understanding we wish they could offer us.