There is something I find frustrating regarding mental illness, which some would find controversial…. People who say ‘we all have mental health’… and imply that depression and anxiety are something we all experience. Someone saying we all have nerves – yes, but not everyone has anxiety – a medical condition. Just like we all feel down sometimes…. but not everyone has chronic depression and wants to end their life.
There seems to be this movement to ‘normalise’ mental illness, and do away with diagnosis. And whilst I applaud people for trying to make those with mental illness feel they are normal, and make them feel less isolated, they’re actually doing more harm than good. What’s happening is it’s making people feel misunderstood and like the intensity of their suffering is being dismissed. It’s saying ‘We all feel like that – it’s normal. It’s human’… but I highly doubt that every person on this planet hates themselves that much, that they cut into their own skin. I doubt they see everything as a means to hurt themselves or end their lives. I doubt they stay up at night, worrying and ruminating on the past, waking up in the morning, seeing no reason to get up. I doubt they starve themselves or make themselves sick. I doubt they have panic attacks. I doubt they pick at their own skin, or pull their own hair out. I doubt they take anti-depressants or anti-psychotic medications, or mood stabilisers. I doubt they struggle with their emotions as much as someone with BPD. I doubt they’re obsessed about germs or doing things in numbers. I doubt they all have hallucinations, delusions and paranoia.
Mental illness is not ‘normal’. It’s not something we all have. To make a statement that we all feel the same, minimises what people actually experience. I had it said to me the other week that we all have nerves…. they don’t even know a thing about my mental health. To say that they know how I feel is ridiculous. I have chronic depression. I have anxiety, and trichotillomania. I self-harm. I have BPD. Can you say the same? At which point I’ve noticed some people turn on their inner arsehole and say ‘It’s not a competition’. No, it’s not a competition… exactly. We don’t all have to have it. But to get anxious about something, or be down in the dumps for a few days because of something, and saying that’s on a level with people with diagnosed mental health conditions, is condescending and trivialises our experiences.
Nobody knows what it’s like to have BPD… except for those who have it. For people to say that ‘being borderline’ is somehow normal is actually quite upsetting. I understand people are trying to break stigma by claiming we are just experiencing being human, but I don’t personally believe that. If having BPD is just being human then surely we’d all have the symptoms. I believe those with BPD ARE different. If you’re telling me this is just what life is like, and there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with me, then that definitely makes me not want to live life! Believing there’s something wrong with me gives me the hope I can get better, and life will be better. If I have to accept this as ‘normal’ then I might as well give up now, as it’s too painful to live with.
Some people don’t want the concept of diagnosis. They don’t want labels. But I actually find it helpful. It’s nice to be able to put a name to what you’re experiencing. It’s just a name to cover a set of symptoms. It should help to form the right treatment path. The stigma of BPD doesn’t come from the name… it comes from what people are told about ‘people like us’. I admit ‘personality disorder’ is not the most helpful of terms, as it implies something is wrong with our personalities. But even if the name changed we’d still be ‘those difficult ones’. This is because of a culture where these opinions are rife. We’re the ‘arm-cutters’, the ‘attention-seekers / manipulators’, the ‘lost causes’. Regardless of the name, people will continue to think these things about us. I don’t care about the name BPD. It doesn’t bother me. It’s the opinions underneath it that bother me. They are what need to be challenged.
I don’t have the official diagnosis of BPD, but I was told it was what I was treated for, and it explains so much of my life. Some would choose not to have a diagnosis – like I did several years ago… I didn’t want the stigma I was told about. But for some it’s a moment where everything clicks and makes sense. Having something to treat can give people more hope. Opinions will vary on this and that’s fine. But to try and do away with diagnosis is dangerous for those who need to feel they can recover.
To imply that it’s simply ‘the human condition’ rather than mental illness, is unhelpful. Yes, the emotions I struggle with because of BPD are human emotions, that we all feel. But if you don’t have BPD then you don’t experience those emotions to the same degree as someone with BPD. You don’t feel emotional pain at the same intensity… if you did you’d also be cutting your skin open. You may say you feel lonely or isolated – I don’t doubt that for a minute…. but you don’t feel it on the same level as someone with BPD. This isn’t a competition… this isn’t making it sound like we’re superior in the knowledge of pain and emotions… it’s a reality, that unless you have BPD you can’t imagine the intensity and the suffering. You can try, but you’ll never picture it. And anyone who says they know how I feel, just piss me off, because they don’t. Whenever I hear this it makes me feel MORE isolated, because they’re claiming to understand a level of emotional pain and loneliness, that they’re not capable of understanding. So in my head I think they’re lying. They’re pretending to understand. Or they honestly think they know how I feel. And it’s so frustrating… because they never will truly comprehend the turmoil inside my mind.
It’s difficult, because we want to be accepted. We want to fit in. We want to be validated. I want all these things… but I don’t want my feelings, thoughts and behaviours passed off as ‘normal’. If I was just a human being with human emotions and no mental illness, I wouldn’t be on a cocktail of medications, and I wouldn’t need therapy. I wouldn’t sometimes end up at the hospital. Splitting on everyone isn’t ‘normal’… if it was then nobody would speak to anyone for long periods of time. Pre-occupation with suicide isn’t ‘normal’ – it’s not a human instinct to kill yourself… the human instinct is survival. Depression so bad you don’t take care of yourself or get out of bed… or anxiety so bad you can’t go out the front door… it’s not ‘normal’. If it was normal then nobody would leave the house, go to work… we’d all sit at home in our pyjamas, with scruffy hair, dirty teeth, starved or dehydrated, watching daytime TV or staring into thin air.
Mental illness isn’t ‘normal’. This does not make us abnormal. It doesn’t meant we shouldn’t be included and accepted as normal human beings. Mental illness isn’t normal, but the people who experience it are normal people. We just have something to contend with, that other normal people don’t have to face in life. Yes we may all experience a bout of mental illness at some point in our lives. But to compare the emotions of anxiety and depression, with the mental illnesses of anxiety and depression, in order to ‘normalise’ mental health issues, only alienates us further. It has the opposite effect to what is intended.
If we trust you enough to open up about our mental health, what we need is validation. We need to have our suffering recognised, without a rendition of ‘Me too!’… ‘We all feel that way sometimes’… ‘I know someone who has that’. We are not all the same. We don’t all have mental illness – if we did then it wouldn’t be called an ‘illness’! We all have emotions, but we don’t all have a diagnosed / diagnosable mental illness. And even those who have a diagnosis are not all the same. Just because you know someone who has BPD it doesn’t mean you understand my BPD. Recognise my suffering if I choose to share it with you. See me as an individual. See me as a normal human being with a mental illness. Don’t see me as the same as you, and don’t see me as my mental illness. Validate my feelings and my experience, without competing. Yes we all have times we struggle. Yes we may both know about an aspect of mental health, but in those moments I choose to open up to you about how I’m feeling, I’m not looking to be comforted that ‘we all feel that way sometimes’ – it brings me no comfort… I’m looking for validation. I’m looking for sympathy / empathy / understanding about my situation…. not yours. I will be writing a post purely about validation soon, for those who don’t know what it is or how to give it.
I do admire those who want to improve life for those with mental illness. I know people sometimes think they’re doing the best by others, but if you stopped and listened to those with these illnesses, or rather listened to the other opinion, you’d see that attempts to identify with our suffering, often alienates us further, invalidates our suffering and robs us of hope that things can get better.
I do appreciate that if you’ve not had a full-blown mental illness it can be hard to know what to say. So these sentiments of ‘We all feel that way sometimes’, ‘I feel like that too’, and ‘It’s just part of life’ come out of your mouth before you stop and think. And actually, fair enough, some people will be comforted by such platitudes – this is just my take on it. But I know I’m not the only one to feel this way – far from it.
If everyone suddenly decided they have the same problems as me, because it’s not ‘mental illness’, it’s ‘the human condition’, therefore we all have mental health problems, then services would be flooded by people with the slightest bout of anxiety or feeling blue. The purpose of mental health services would lose all meaning, and those who are severely affected by mental illness and in desperate need of support won’t get the help they need, as the services are taken up by those with more easily managed issues. It’s hard enough to get much-needed support. You either get help from IAPT for mild to moderate anxiety and depression, or you have to be so severe that CMHT will see you. If you’re somewhere in between you’re screwed… lost in the system. And unfortunately people in this category when left to their own devices will tend to stray further towards the extreme, rather than recover by themselves. Mental health services are stretched as it is. To imply that we’re all the same, will make some people think they need therapy for just experiencing a human emotion of anxiety, rather than for the chronic illness of anxiety.
It also says that we’re all ‘normal’ therefore people don’t require therapy or treatment, because it’s just part of being human. I remember a time when I was mentally ill and mental health services were there to support you. It was their job to assist you in getting better. Nowadays it seems that their ‘job’ is simply to give you a toolbox to help yourself. A few sessions just to tell you what you need to do, and then it’s up to you whether you sink or swim. I understand this is because of increased pressure on services. They can’t give you the time and support you need. They’re doing their best. But in the meantime people who need more persistent care and support are being let down. We’re being left to fend for ourselves. As much as it might frustrate professionals that they can’t do more, and that people like me won’t do more to help ourselves, what they have to realise is if I could, I would. Unfortunately my mental health has deteriorated past the point where I can do this on my own. They also have to realise that as much as they’re frustrated with the state of mental health services, they’re not the ones suffering for it. We are the casualties. It’s much worse for patients who are left feeling like a lost cause after four CBT sessions, for example. It shouldn’t be this way. It never used to be this way. You used to get the help you needed for your illness. Now they tell you we all feel that way, and these are the tools to use to cope with it like everyone else. For some people it will work. For others, not so much. Just like some people will like seeing their illness as a part of being human, nothing more. But others prefer to see it as an illness that can be treated.
My view is that if you yourself do not know the complexities of actual mental illness, then please try not to identify with our struggles on a basic human level. Don’t try to make us all equal when we know full well that we operate differently to you! It will make us feel like we’re failing in life, if you can cope with the ‘exact same feelings’ as us, and not feel the need to cut yourself, hide in your bed, or starve yourself. Those who have / have had mental illness can choose to feel how they like about this, but if you don’t know first-hand the feelings and thoughts a mentally ill person experiences, then treat them as normal people, with respect, dignity, kindness, caring and concern. But do not try to make them feel what they are experiencing is ‘normal’. It’s not and whether you mean it or not, there can be catastrophic consequences of diminishing our pain.
The times I’ve felt most alone were times where people told me they understand, when I know full well they haven’t a clue what I’m feeling. In the end it makes me shut down and not bother telling people I’m struggling, as I know it will become a competition, or they’ll give me advice that works for milder mental illness, but not for something such as BPD. I would take a guess that a fair few lives have been lost because people claimed to understand the suffering of others, as they feel that way too…. they didn’t validate the feelings of the person in front of them… they threw in ideas like ‘It’s part and parcel of life unfortunately’, and carried on with life – only to be shocked when the person ended their life, feeling isolated and misunderstood. Hopeless. They’d claim they never saw it coming. But the signs were there. They tried reaching out for help, but nobody would listen.
What it boils down to is the need for us to be heard. To not be given advice unless we ask for it. To have someone sit and actually listen to how hard life is for us and why. Listening – it’s the one thing so desperately needed in life… the one thing that gets forgotten. We often say to people to speak out if they’re struggling – tell someone… reach out….. but if there’s nobody there prepared to truly listen it only compounds the problem and will drive it underground until it’s too late.
These are just some of my thoughts, I appreciate people will have their own views on all this. That’s one of the good things about life – variety. Thanks for reading.