Mental illnesses are as colorful as they are dark and as deep as those uneducated about them seem shallow. Too often, they remain faceless, minimized, stereotyped, and overwhelming. In reality, they are dodgy bastards -- carrying weighty stigmas -- not easily quashed by simple pills or therapy. And, perhaps most concerning of all, they are everywhere.
Mental illness "sufferers," as they are known, come in all shapes, sizes, and colors like every other human on this planet. Sure, there's plenty of data that aims to shed light on the demographics that tend to be at higher risk for them, but let me spare you the mind-numbingly dry reading of today's leading researchers and pedagogues by illustrating just how close to home these sufferers really are:
At work, smiling Nancy from the accounting department -- with her quick wit and generous, maternal nature -- is a hoarder. The very thought of having visitors into her home triggers dangerous heart palpitations that only exacerbate her family history of strokes.
Dr. Winters, your handsome, convivial dentist of 20 years who's always insisted that you just call him Rick, is one hand washing away from relapsing into full-blown germophobia coupled with his lifelong struggle with dermatillomania. (That's right, those rubber gloves you've always noted him wearing religiously around his office actually shield him, in his mind, from the worst of the world's contaminants while carefully concealing his unsightly, self-inflicted wounds.)
And let's not forget Sheryl or Sandra or whatever her name is -- you know, that "odd" retired neighbor you never really see or interact with except when you're driving home from a late dinner and she's out walking her very energetic dog. You waive, she waives back politely -- a gesture belying her deep-seated, agoraphobia and social anxiety disorder that keep her (and her dog) imprisoned in her home most days and nights.
Then, there's you -- with all your beautiful and intricate contradictions, your accomplishments and dreams, and your steadfast reasons for why things are the way they are and how they could (or, perhaps, couldn't) be any better for you. Where do you fall in all of this? Is your mental slate so clean that you can't imagine how even a slight shift in your circumstance could alter your path or unwittingly open -- perhaps even widely -- a floodgate of feelings you just can't seem to control? Are you so "blessed" or "positive" that you've become blinded -- numb to the experiences of others -- and convinced that a little willpower along with the so-called "right" attitude could turn everything around should you become afflicted? Or, are you just "grateful" that these curious demons you sometimes hear about are not your own nor do they torment your loved ones? How convenient for you. How lucky you must think that you are...
But, before you distance yourself so quickly, at least take a look at your friends, as it's widely reported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that approximately 1 in 4 adults will experience some type of mental illness during a given year.
Take your friend, for example: The one that's perpetually unavailable -- too busy with life to ever answer your calls. Yes, her: The one you herald as part of your innermost circle (even though you don't actually speak but once or twice a year) but whose friendship you've frustratingly considered writing off; the one with whom your unique rapport has been tried and tested on some of life's harshest battlefields. No outsider could ever change your adoring opinion of her or persuade you to spill her secrets -- you just wish she was there more often, like she used to be. After all, you'll never forget the times when she figuratively slugged your shoulder when you wanted to cry, then lovingly offered you hers to lean on when you eventually did. If you ever wrote a book about the scheming plots and antics you've executed, she'd no doubt be prominently featured and admirably portrayed. She'd tell you anything. You two have shared everything. But, believe you me, she just couldn't tell you this: The 5 Really Real Reasons [She] Can't Talk to You.
1. She's mentally ill and possibly humiliated by it.
Severe clinical depression and other monsters (they charmingly like to team up) have robbed her of her signature, enviable will. She's too ashamed to reveal the depths of her darkness to you (or most anyone) and, what's worse, she's too physically and emotionally drained to continue concealing them. So, she hides -- usually in bed. Tethered to her iPhone, she feigns an existence that won't raise red flags while keeping abreast of all your life events she's missing by not answering your calls, texts, or emails. To be clear -- she'd rather you think her a shitty friend than someone too unstable and afraid to see the soft landing you will always offer her.
2. She's catastrophizing (a common cognitive disorder, Google it).
At this very moment, she is predicting negative outcomes in her relations with you and everyone else in her life. In addition, she's jumping to the conclusion that if any of those negative outcomes did in fact occur they would be too ruinous and totally overwhelming to her already fragile self. She's tallied up everyone's failed attempts at contacting her then weighted each with a fitting amount of guilt, and she quietly bear this magnificent burden on a near-daily basis; or sometimes absolutely not at all as she must block it out entirely to pretend to function.
3. She's struggling financially.
Since she has difficultly functioning normally or consistently, she is often embarrassingly underemployed --a fact you may or may not know. She's strapped for milk money when her peers are purchasing houses. They worry about FICO scores, she anxiously dodges calls from debt collectors. Even something as benign as meeting you for tea stresses her out. Although she'd adore your comfort, she can't afford the luxury lest the stress of it all send her spiraling back into bed for an indeterminable amount of time. And, NO, you cannot buy her tea -- certainly not armed with her ugly truth! She desperately doesn't want your pity; she unfairly assumes you couldn't possibly understand the nuances of her situation, and no amount of chamomile or rose hips could undo the judgment she spies overpowering your very real love.
4. She's embarrassed by her physical appearance.
She's fat -- and not even in the politically incorrect, fishing-for-compliments way. The real way; the medically worrisome way. Her unique blend of mental illnesses and their corresponding prescriptions have paradoxically ravaged her once taut body and bled her of her indefatigable self-esteem while indecently leaving her vanity intact. Some days, she cries or is angry at her circumstance. But, mostly, days pass her listlessly as she dreams of better tomorrows that can't come soon enough or cruelly come entirely too fast. Other days, she may not leave her bed or even shower -- as she's regrettably learned that, yes, even hygiene is a choice. Thus, she plainly can't meet you as she wouldn't want you to view her as the enormous shadow of her former self she's become.
5. She's done it once and she'll do it again -- she's a liar and repeat offender.
Truth is, she's just fine. Well, she's not fine, but it's not your problem any way you swing it. You never signed up for this, and no fine print exists in your years-old friendship requiring you to step up to the plate when she's crumbling. She's probably let you down before -- likely earlier on, before she better understood her illnesses -- and she'll no doubt let you down again. She may have confided in you her pain and confusion or unintentionally wasted your favors. She may have even accepted your financial help. In sum, she's burdened you with debts she's perpetually in no position to repay. Sure, even if you deny any burdens or graciously forgive them (because you're totally awesome and giving like that), understand the very thought of your accepting this one puts too much pressure on her to "get better" so that she doesn't prematurely disappoint you again. Her role here, after all, is "sufferer" (she cringes at this hopeless, dismissive word) and with that comes some deep imperfections and painfully delicate flaws -- all amounting to a lifelong saga whose plot is directed by no one.
So, next time you find her unavailable for an extended period of time, know that there might be something more to her presumed busyness. She, in fact, is the face of the statistic; she is who unwittingly brings the harsh reality of mental illness home for you. And, quietly, she may want you to know all of this -- or to gently make yourself more aware.
But despite the fact she might be stalled, stranded, or fighting -- unable to scream you messages she so desperately wants you to hear -- know that from the confines of her hiding places and the occasional prison of her soul, with everything she has left to spare (often not much) she loves you -- just the same as yesterday and each day preceding that one, all the way back to the time your hearts last melded and you shared joy. Circa then, she loves you -- even if she is unable sometimes to directly let you know. And while she has no good advice, solution, or answers for you, know that she truly does look forward to a day when catching up with you won't be so wholly overwhelming or regressive. But, until that day, for her and the other one in four, she implores you: rethink mental illness.
"You cannot save people, you can only love them." -- Anais Nin, The Diary Of Anais Nin, Volume Two (1934-1939)
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.