Mental illness isn’t always doom and gloom. Okay, I’m lying. It’s mostly pretty shitty. But it does, however, come with a little known superpowers… Empathy & Insight! Imagine suddenly being able to truly understand the fear, sadness or anxiety inside the one in every five Australians who are affected by mental illness every year. Not just nodding your head and feeling sympathy, but actually truly understanding what it means when people say they’re not having a good day or that they’re not well. The empathy we develop via the insight we hold of the lived experience of mental illness is truly a reward for the rough time it often puts us through. It’s the singular blessing of an otherwise heavy burden.
I’ve long believed neurotypical folks will never totally get it, try as they might. Even the best mental health ally couldn’t truly understand completely, or possess the kind of insight that another person who lives with mental illness can. And that’s no slight on those who attempt to understand. I love that neurotypical types try to understand the trials we go through as individuals with mental illness, but the fact is I don’t want them to be able to really understand. Truly ‘getting it’ means belonging to a club that none of us want to hold memberships to.
It’s the lived experience of those with mental illness that allows us to truly bond with others in the same situation. It’s knowing the anger felt when admitting your illness to people who suggest you overcome it with a vegan diet and the latest self help book they saw Oprah tweet about. It’s seeing your family member’s eyebrow raise and their face become cynical and dismissive as you explain your diagnosis, rendering you forever aware of the stigma that still exists around these labels. It’s knowing the fear of disclosing your condition to your employer and workmates, terrified you’ll be looked upon as less competent than your peers. It’s understanding the days you just can’t get out of bed, or the days you can’t leave the house. They are situations we all know, and share in common.
There are times in my life I’ve wondered if I’d trade in this life for a neurotypical one, and it kind of stumps me. Of course, I’d prefer to live without mental illness commandeering my life, but at the same time, the fact that it allows me to truly bond with and understand the journey of others walking a similar path is something I feel is a real asset. There are so many people I’ve gone on to meet that I could relate to in a far more intimate way than I could if I wasn’t unwell myself. When I spent ten weeks in hospital last year, it was the first time in my life I’d ever been surrounded by a group of individuals who all knew what it was like to live like me. I didn’t have to explain myself when I said I was having a bad day. They understood why some days I would retreat into myself and barely speak at all. They got what I meant when I talked about the brain zaps withdrawing from antidepressants can cause. They appreciated things that would trigger my OCD, like changing the channel without being asked if Embarrassing Bodies came on to the TV at night. They all just got it, without any need for the explanations, that are usually required within the real world. It was a sense of belonging and camaraderie that I had never felt before. In saying that, I’m not discounting the efforts the people around me have made to understand my actions or thoughts, but there’s knowing and there’s knowing. I’ve even had people contact me recently, since starting to blog, who have said that they never had any idea what I was going through until they were affected themselves by mental illness, and now they understand completely. I guess it’s the difference between walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes versus completing a marathon in those same shoes. To truly understand and appreciate another’s pain and distress is ultimately a gift in this life. It might not always feel that way, but life is complex and doesn’t always make sense at the time. It’s often not until after the fact that we can acknowledge that what might seem like a curse, can actually benefit us in so many ways. I’m a big believer in silver linings, and possessing empathy and insight into mental illness is the ultimate comfort amongst chaos one could ask for on this journey.