“You don’t look like a patient.”
This was said to me by a nurse who was prepping me for my second electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatment when I was in the hospital last summer. At the time, I did not think about it–as I was focused on my treatment. But since then, I feel agitated by it. What does a patient with mental illness look like? To answer that I simply look in the mirror.
People with mental illness look like me, your neighbor, your brother, your best friend. We are all people. Unfortunately, having a mental illness carries a certain stigma. People of my generation and before may envision someone who looks unkempt, disheveled, drooling, yelling, and scary. Not only is this a false vision of people with mental illness, it is a disservice to those who have mental illness–as we are human beings, just like everyone else. Some are successful in their careers, some stay home with their kids, some are walking by you on your way into work.
The comment I heard from my nurse made me think about appearances. Certainly when I was in the hospital I noticed that the patients had different levels of appearance. I was showered, no makeup, wearing pajamas and looked sad much of the time. Other patients remained in bed, while others roamed the hall appearing lost. Out of the hospital, I appear well-kempt, wearing makeup–and I appear physically healthy. Does this mask my illness? Perhaps for those observing me, but not for me. It is still a part of me. If someone who suffers from schizophrenia walks down the street silently, not responding to voices in his head, does that mean he does not have schizophrenia? Do we all have to appear “crazy” in order for others to label us?
This is how I view it: each of us is normal in our own abnormal way. I am not abnormal because I have a mental illness, for this is my normal. This is my life. For those of us with a mental illness, not only do we deserve to not be labeled, we also deserve to not be placed into a box that society has made for us in order to be separate. People fear the unknown. If someone is unfamiliar with mental illness, it is natural to fear it. The important step to take at this point in time is one of forward education.
The old image from the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” of Jack Nicholson’s character being forced to undergo ECT while awake does not need to be the current image for society to hold on to when defining those with mental illness. We are not scary or unreachable. We are people who are sick with illnesses that often require interventions, such as therapy, medication, hospitalization, etc.
There are many treatment options and–these days–therapists, psychiatrists, and psychopharmacologists to treat patients based on each individual’s situation. It is not a one size fits all kind of treatment as it was in the past. The greater society must recognize this and decide to face their fear. What is it that scares people so much about mental illness? If it is misunderstanding, then become more educated. If it is fear, then turn to the fear and figure out what is so daunting. Stop being complacent, lazy, or just uninterested. Mental illness is here, it is part of our world. This is not going away. It is time to accept, take responsibility for, and care about other human beings, including those with a mental illness. Remember, each of us is normal in our own abnormal way. This is called life.