Explaining my mental illness to people is frustrating. It’s always the same questions, and while I’m happy to answer them and dispel myths, I feel like people should already know the answers; because isn’t it common enough these days? I mean, if I had a dollar for every time someone asks me, “So, do you think you’ll stop taking your meds one day…?”
“Normal” people don’t understand that taking meds is not really a choice, and being depressed is certainly not a choice; negativity perhaps, but not depression. Let me put it this way: I don’t wake up in the morning and decide to have a pit in my stomach, feel gloom and doom for no particular reason, fantasize about dying in a car accident, and then conclude my suicide isn’t worthy of the cleanup.
No one chooses to have these thoughts because these thoughts aren’t fun—they’re emotionally apocalyptic and impairing.
So, no: the answer to that question is no. I do not think I’ll stop taking my meds one day.
Another thing that’s frustrating is the assumed correlation between success and mental health. “But you have so many things going for you, and you have so much.” People often suggest. Well, it turns out that accomplishments and privilege are not a tell-tale sign that someone is mentally healthy, or should be.
And this is when I bring in the old diabetes analogy…
There are all kinds of diabetics—rich, poor, educated, uneducated. Regardless of their status, they all need insulin; depressed people are no different. And it’s at this point people give me weird looks because I’m so nonchalant about my pills, my “insulin.” But I just look at them like they’re weird for not realizing that the brain is your most vital organ, and why wouldn’t you do everything and anything to take care of it?
So, then you’ve got people who half-way talk about it. One friend boasted that he was on Zoloft, but “on like the lowest possible dose.” I raised my eyebrows, and jokingly asked him if he thought this made him better than me. He understood my point and we both had a good laugh.
“Seriously, Joanne, you’re not ‘mentally ill.’ Come on. Don’t be so dramatic.”
But that’s not how I see it. Yes, I am mentally ill, and it’s important that I say it because there is no shame in it. I won’t tiptoe around the topic because other people are uncomfortable, and I won’t stop casually referring to my “happy pills” any more than a diabetic wouldn’t check her blood sugar level at the dinner table. It’s a part of who I am, and in a weird way, I’m proud of it.
Being mentally ill has taught me humility and empathy. You see, things came easy to me, intellectually. I could learn languages at a pace no one else could, understand complex topics and connect the dots, and my mind was often five steps ahead of 99% of my conversation partners.
But when your mom writes you a letter, during your study abroad year in Germany, begging you to try Prozac, you know you’ve got a problem. Those words are hard to swallow, especially from the person who loves you the most.
I spent a lot of years working with a therapist and learning coping skills. The things I had to learn are rudimentary for others, but so hard for me; mastering them required a huge time commitment and emotional investment. When it was all said and done, and my therapist told me that she’s never had a patient work as hard as I did, I felt pretty awesome. It was a different kind of accomplishment that carried more weight than any traditional “win.”
So, when people make light of therapy or even say “they don’t believe in meds,” I look at them like they’re totally missing something, because they are. Meds work—they save lives. And when people invalidate something that’s been my life’s struggle, I do get frustrated.
And don’t I have the right to?
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.