What It Is Like to Have a Mental Illness

One of my family members said she couldn’t imagine what it was like to have a mental illness, but she said she was glad I could see the positive side of it.

Let me try to explain what it is like to have a mental illness. It means that you are different from your peers and from most of the society around you. It means you will be feared by some and misunderstood by others. It means that you have an invisible illness. You look fine and normal on the outside, but few people can truly understand what goes on on the inside. It means you cringe every time a violent crime, such as a mass shooting, is committed because you know that the mentally ill will be misrepresented in the media and that the stigma against mental illness will be reinforced. It means hearing things like, “Are you too depressed to put one foot in front of the other and get a job?” Or, “You are on vacation in the hospital while the rest of us are working our asses off!”. Or, perhaps, “I think if you got a job you wouldn’t get so depressed.”

Having a mental illness means that you have to work very hard for what most other people just take for granted — good mental health. It means constantly waging a battle with your own body — with your own malfunctioning, mentally ill brain. It means having to endure suffering so severe that it makes you want to end your life so the pain will stop. On the flip side, it means having so much energy you don’t know what to do with yourself. You can’t sleep. Your mind is racing with all sorts of creative thoughts and ideas, yet you can’t focus long enough to get anything at all accomplished. You spend money as if you had access to Bill Gate’s bank account. You feel so good that you want to throw the whole world the most awesome party in the history of the world. You take dangerous risks. You may even lose touch with reality and think that you have supernatural powers or that you can jump off of a tall building without harming yourself. You may drive like a maniac on slick, icy roads (I’ve done that!). You may think that you alone have all of the answers to the world’s problems, and that world peace would be possible if only the world’s leaders would listen to you.

Having a mental illness means having pharmaceutical cocktails thrown at you in the hopes that something will help. Meanwhile, you are left to deal with the many unpleasant side effects of the drugs. You gain weight. You pee a lot. Maybe you are constipated. You might shake uncontrollably. You might experience severe nausea. You might experience tachycardia (a racing heart) or bradycardia (a slow heartbeat). You might experience outrageous sugar cravings. You might even get diabetes. And the list goes on and on and on and on… yet, if they work, these drugs may be your only hope of gaining some semblance of a “normal” life.

Yes, there can be a silver lining to the cloud of mental illness. When mentally ill people are feeling reasonably stable, they often do experience a real zest for life that can be contagious. They can be very productive, and they often have a great deal of empathy and compassion for others who are suffering. Yet, given a choice, no one who is mentally ill would choose to be that way.

I hope that gives you some idea of what it is like to be mentally ill and some idea of what those of us who suffer from mental illness have to deal with. My opinion is that we are some of the strongest, most compassionate and empathetic people in the world…