I’ve learned that if you can’t laugh at your mental illness(es) sometimes, you really will lose your damn mind — and your sense of self. I’ve lost both. Then I found ’em chasing each other through the broken glass of a downtown alley, cut myself up dragging them back against their will.
If you love someone who’s living life despite their mental illness, there are some things you might appreciate knowing so you both stay a little more sane.
That said, I’m not a licensed professional and this is purely anecdotal and from my own experiences and work with my therapist.
This kind of took on a life of its own and got long, but it’s worth it. Pervasive theme? We overthink just about everything, and we’d really like some peace and quiet upstairs.
1. Mental illness is a real thing, and it’s not a choice.
PTSD, anxiety, paranoia, OCD, bipolar I and II, depression. Borderlines, dissociatives, anti-socials, phobics. The list goes on…
Typically, they come in variety packs and you get to sample more than one at a time. Mental illnesses work on sliding scales, too. You might have anxiety and depression, but one more than the other on any given day. It’s really fun trying to sort that and keep the balance.
Trust me. No one who truly suffers from mental illness is making this sh*t up. Mental illness has a uniquely impressive ability to ruin relationships, hurt everyone involved, lead our minds down dark alleys, and take over our lives. It is very, very real. And it really, really sucks. One minute you feel fine, and the next minute your head leaks out of your body and everything goes sideways. It is a constant battle for some shred of peace.
You lose a lot of time wondering why you can’t just be “normal,” even though you have zero clue what that even means. You cry. A bunch. You struggle to eat. Sleep. Breathe. …it’s exhausting.
2. No, we can’t just get over it.
Please for the love of everything holy, don’t ever tell a person with a mental illness to “get over it” or “snap out of it.” That’s insulting. Don’t mock them for it. Don’t downplay it or act like it’s not a big deal just because you might be lucky enough not to understand the agony of living with a hijacked mind that doesn’t seem to have an off switch, or operating controls, or a map. If we could just wiggle our noses and *poof* it away, we would absolutely do that.
3. We will lose ourselves to this from time to time.
At some point, despite our best efforts, we’re going to lose it and do something that makes you wonder what spawn of hell just possessed our bodies.
If you’re around long enough, you’re going to get a front row seat to this one. You’ll think that you’re getting some glimpse of the “real” us, and that everything else you’ve seen has been a ruse to hide the monster underneath, but you’ll have that bit wrong.
The fun part? We’ll be just as surprised as you when something we don’t even recognize as a part of us comes falling out of our bodies. Actions we regret. Words we don’t mean. Threats and other craziness we’d never carry out. You’re all asking us “What the hell?” and we usually have no clue what just happened until it’s fully overthought via the lens of hindsight. You cannot punish us for this, for anything really, more severely than we’ll punish ourselves. Don’t try.
Understand that these things — good, bad, or otherwise — have been trapped inside of us for a long time, choking us, and in a moment of fear, panic, desperation, they took over our ability to create reason in our world. The compulsion that escapes our mouths is a byproduct of the weeks-long (sometimes years-long) struggle with the things in our world, particularly the ones we can’t control.
4. Please don’t try to “fix” us.
On the one hand, your support is invaluable to us. Thank you so much for loving us through all the frustration and disappointment and intensity. Many of us would be dead without you, literally. We can be quite impulsive/compulsive, which pretty much always blows up in our faces. We often look to you as a compass for normalcy, both to teach us what that even is and to create that kind of life with us.
On the other hand, there’s nothing to “fix,” and you’ll exhaust yourself trying, which we don’t want for you. We’re just wired differently. It makes it harder to get through the day, but there’s nothing actually wrong with us as people. Let’s just hold space for each other and love one another through the tough days, yeah? We’ve all got ’em.
5. Please be consistent.
Personally, this is what I need the most, and the anecdotal research I’ve done is, well, consistent with that. It’s hard for anyone to go through life with a bunch of half-assed folks around that you can’t count on, but when you live with a mental illness, the effects of those people in your life, especially if you care deeply for them, are exacerbated. Sometimes to (what will seem like to everyone else but us) hyperbolic levels. Eventually, the inconsistencies stack up and get served with a nice side of anxiety and it just becomes brain chaos for us. We’re desperate for stability.
We’re terrified when people lash out because we often can’t fully understand how we upset them and we freeze up in fear. We’ve lived a life so full of it, that we’re sometimes driven through that fear to say almost anything to end the confrontation, which, of course, just makes things worse. We know this. We know it doesn’t work that way. It’s agonizing.
We developed our coping mechanisms by trying to survive the treatment of others. Don’t add to that. It takes help from people (usually professionals) willing to call us on our patterns and addictions and teach us not to be destructive. That’s honestly the last thing we’re trying to be. We’re kinda just terrified. Of everything.
Be consistent. Don’t fan the fire. Be there. Make us a priority. Be patient. Tell us we’re beautiful people and it’s all going to be okay. Say it again. All the hugs. Be our home, our safe place. The benefits for you are unlimited.
6. Our coping doesn’t always make sense.
Over the years, we had to develop coping skills to make it through the day. We count things or have routines to get us through. We repeat mantras that comfort. Not my circus; not my monkeys. Some of us retreat. Others find people because the silence of being alone is too loud.
You’ll see us cope with a situation one way. And then sometimes, the same thing will happen, and we’ll have a totally different reaction. It’s confusing as hell. We know. It’s not on purpose. We’re confused, too.
Please know that all we’re ever trying to do is sort our worlds and shut our heads up. They’re loud and mean and scary and chaotic. I’d say we’re sorry that we don’t make sense sometimes, but we’re not. We’d rather confuse you a little than wish a genuine understanding of this crap on you. Our coping mechanisms might seem “off,” but for many of us, that’s the only normal we’ve ever known. For some, they’re the only reason we’re still around.
Gently express your concern if we’ve picked up some unhealthy ones. Outside of obvious things like substance abuse, we’re very likely not going to understand what you’re saying to us. We might even argue with you because we just can’t see it properly.
For example, it took me forever to realize that my intentions were not a safety net, that just because I wasn’t going into a situation maliciously didn’t mean others shared my outlook. I didn’t want to be a victim but my blind trust in people being innately good combined with codependency issues was setting me up for exactly that. My BFF was the one to finally get me to understand.
Please breathe through this with us. Don’t yell. Just breathe. We’re trying. We’re trying so hard.
7. We’re neither predictable nor unpredictable.
We know that this is extremely frustrating, that it makes us look volatile even. We’re actually some of the stablest people because we’re always fighting so damn hard for it. By the time we finally do fall apart, we’ve been fighting for so long we just don’t have anything left to keep the dam from breaking. Rinse. Repeat. Stick around long enough and you’ll see the pattern.
Dam breaks and BOOM. We’re crying, yelling, threatening, running, smothering, shutting down, or whatever-the-hell else. Sometimes all of it. We know we’re chasing you away, scaring the hell out of you, but we can’t help it most of the time. It’s all just chaos up there when we get to this point. All the coping mechanisms have failed us and we’re in panic mode.
Please just understand it’s going to happen here and there no matter how hard we fight it. Please remember we are always fighting it. We know it’s not always rational to the degree it tends to explode out of us. It exhausts us, too. We’re breaking our own hearts because we know we’re breaking yours. We understand if you can’t take it, most leave because they can’t, but we really hope you’ll love us despite it.
8. We really want to trust you.
If your person suffers from a mental illness, ask them questions about it and listen without judgment. We want to trust you with this struggle because we desperately need for you to understand or our heads will never stop churning about it.
Know that this is a huge deal for us, to let you in and be so vulnerable with you. We are risking a metric crap ton of setbacks doing it. Please respect the thing.
The codependents?? We’re opening Pandora’s Box, a gloriously neurotic trip down self-deprecation lane. We’ll want to share our lives with you, but we’ll also be terrified that we’ll fall back into the vicious cycle that leads to thinking we’re the most unworthy people on the planet when you inevitably can’t reciprocate like we give. We know that this expectation is our own projection on you, that it’s not fair and often unattainable. We hate that about ourselves, too. Another battle we fight.
Most codependents will be afraid you’re somehow unhappy and that you’re going to leave us. Our entire sense of self worth can get wrapped up in you, and those of us who are “woke” don’t want that for you or for us. Many of us, those doing the work anyway, know that this is extremely unhealthy for us both. So to give you the keys to the kingdom is massive for us.
To be vulnerable and trusting, my obsessive-compulsive friends are signing themselves up for a long list of behaviors they’ll have to work into their days so that they can find the mental space to accept all the new variations and threats to what precious little stability they’ve created. Usually their safety is found in their homes. Consider yourself blessed if you’re welcome there. It’s a bigger deal than you probably realize. It’s probably the ultimate sign of trust from them.
My PTSD peeps? Lawd. We’re paranoid and question everything people say and do around us to excess, because we’re convinced there’s some ulterior motive or some code for what you really mean because everyone’s always lying or hiding something. Leave things out on purpose?? Sh*t. Rabbit hole that leads to overthinking, convulsions, panic attacks, potential substance abuse, lashing out. Please just talk to us.
9. Please just say wtf you mean the first time.
We’re always confused. Not because we’re dumb. You don’t need to talk to us like children. We’re just struggling to sort our realities, largely because we don’t trust anyone or, worse, because we trust everyone and only see the best in them.
I know it’s hard sometimes, but if you can just say what you really want to say the first time with the intent and context you actually mean, that’d be so helpful. If we ask you questions about it or rephrase things in conversation, we’re not trying to be dicks. We’re not trying to split hairs. We’re trying to understand you. Fully. We respect you enough that we want to do this for you, but we also can’t leave any holes.
When you leave things out, it can trigger the compulsion to fill in the blanks, which never works out well for anyone. Filling in all the gaps helps to silence the noise in our heads, which only brings good things your way. It will likely be frustrating to you when it happens. Please just try to talk to us without anger or condescension. Don’t let us guess. That’s actually quite cruel.
10. Don’t tear us down.
We don’t need you to fix us, but we also don’t need you to rip apart what we spend ridiculous amounts of mental and emotional energy trying to hold together.
You’re allowed to have your emotional response to our moments of chaos, sure. But please think twice before calling us names, walking out on us, or otherwise attacking us personally. Most of us just aren’t built to take it anymore.
Besides, personal attacks aren’t necessary, and they only cause us to start doubting you and regret putting our trust in you. That type of stuff tears apart mentally healthy people, so imagine the energy it takes for us to keep forgiving and fighting for the shared goal.
We want to forgive, even when we know we maybe shouldn’t. We do it really easily, though, because it brings us peace. Please don’t make it harder than it has to be. There’s a saturation point where we won’t be able to unhear the hurtful words, and then we’ll put them on loop in our heads.
11. We’re not “crazy.”
It’s an illness. It’s not us just hanging out being irrational for kicks and giggles. Those seeking professional help are looking to rewrite years of faulty programming and learn healthier habits. We’re not insane; we’re exhausted.
There are people, too, who truly can’t help some of their behaviors. A person who needs to turn the door latch a specific number of times to lock it, for example, needs to do that to make it through the day.
They know their door is locked. This is knowledge they possess, can recall at will. But if the person didn’t have those “crazy” rituals, they’d have to leave work and go home and check. Sometimes, despite the rituals, they actually do have to go check.
That doesn’t make them “crazy.” If anything, it pisses them smooth off to feel like this compulsion is in charge of their lives. We know that it doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t mean we can help it. Definitely don’t need to hear someone we love tell us we’re insane.
Ultimately, too, calling people “crazy” creates a stigma that needs to be addressed. It discourages people from getting the help they need because they don’t want to experience the shame that gets projected on them for it.
12. It’s not always about you.
It’s really easy to take it personally when someone with a mental illness has a complete come apart right after you do something to seemingly upset them. Or, more frightening, when they’re falling apart and you can’t even sort why. Sure, it might be about you, but pretty often it’s not.
Even when it is about you, there are times when our reaction is way more than the situation deserves. That’s because people with mental illnesses tend to carry around mental and emotional baggage that doesn’t belong to them. You might have said something to trigger us, sure, but that doesn’t mean everything we’re now breaking down over has anything to do with that.
A lot of times, cracking the lid is enough to blow it off. What we’re stressed about at the end of the mini-series is totally unrelated to the season premiere. At its worst, it’s like some out-of-body experience. You see it happening. You know it’s ridiculous. You can’t stop it. It’s so annoying.
On that note…
13. Understand our triggers.
This isn’t as hard as it might sound. We’re trying to tell you about them anyway because we want to trust you and love you openly and fully. In some cases, we want you to know so that when it happens, we can have the hope that you’ll blow it off and not take it personally. We’re usually terrified you’re out the next door, too, so before we get too involved, we’re all like, “Here… this is what’s up.” Gives you a chance to bail before we get invested.
I promise you, though, the vast majority of us have overthought this issue to the point that we’ve made 3am lists to get them out of our heads in the hopes we’ll sleep that night. Feel free to ask. We’ll share. We really don’t want to be triggered. Sucks for everyone.
Honestly, too, if you stick around long enough and just pay attention, you’ll sort the obvious ones for yourself. When you see them, ask. Don’t assume you’ve mastered the thing. And hell, sometimes asking helps us learn about them, too. Win/win.
14. We are strong af.
Many of us normalized horrific situations growing up. A great chunk of us found the only control in our lives came from doing really awful things to ourselves and, by proxy, others. We tell someone about our normal and their jaws drop, and we’re just there like, “What’d I say?”
And we’re serious. We don’t know which part of our story is alarming. We will tell you the craziest sh*t with straight faces because that’s just how it was. It’s a history lesson to us. And it’s kinda terrifying, actually, not to have a grasp on normalcy. It’s amazing we haven’t wandered into traffic or something.
Those of us (usually in therapy) facing the mental chaos and redefining our normal are even stronger. We’re not perfect. And we’re not done. And sure, you’ll see us fall apart here and there. We’ll scare you with it sometimes, even. But know this — we’ve done this a thousand times in our lives, and we rebuild even better each time we crumble. Just hug it out with us. It’s a process.
Hell…. Get an older version like me and throw her in weekly therapy and biweekly group therapy and you’ll find someone who’s turned over a lot of stones to scrape the ugly off them. I’ve rebuilt so often that it takes A LOT for me to fall apart in spectacular fashion anymore.
We grow when we face it. We learn to manage better when we’re given the right tools and the right people stand with us. (Shout out to all those people doing that for their people!)
For many of us, the only real challenge to our strength is having to carry around someone else’s problem for longer than it should have been in our lives. We’re not doing this to be martyrs or anything; we’re usually involved somehow. I just mean it’s someone else’s problem because we can’t do anything to solve it.
For a lot of people, that’s a blessing, knowing you can just walk away from it and not have to deal with it because it’s not yours. Doesn’t work that way for us, though. We’re built to overthink and solve everything, ours or not. It takes great effort to let go of that. Not my circus; not my monkeys.
So when that happens, the problem, while legit in its own right, snowballs over time and becomes a metaphor. Might seem like nothing to most, but to us, it’s crippling because we’re also completely helpless to do anything about it, and we literally need you to fix it so that we can make our heads quiet and get past it.
Otherwise, get ready to be in awe. We’re resilient as hell.
15. Please don’t be scared of us.
We’re tornados. We’re tempests. We can be impulsive and compulsive. We’ll hurt ourselves. We’ll hurt everyone around us. Real talk, though. Everyone is capable of that and does that at some point in their lives. Don’t judge us any differently for it, and don’t be scared of us because we admit it.
We’re not monsters. We just live a mentally complicated life. And we’ll confuse the sh*t out of you. The face of mental illness is usually the brightest, happiest personality in the room. We’re overcompensating. We’re trying to make other people happy so they don’t feel like we feel. Some of us are feeding codependency addictions. Others are just trying to “fake it until they make it.”
We’re still people. We just want to love you, be loved in return, and be accepted for who we are — flawed individuals trying to be better every day.
Besides… isn’t that what we’re all doing?? We’ve just got a few more obstacles in our way and hope you’ll be a touch sympathetic about it.