Although our society has made significant progress in de-stigmatizing mental illness, the stigma surrounding mental health conditions is still prevalent for those living with mental illness. The ubiquitous mental health stigma may cause people will mental illness to fear opening up about the reality of their conditions or to downplay the severity of their most challenging moments out of fear of judgement. Understanding the truth behind your loved ones’ words will allow you to support them in their most challenging moments with mental illness. Here are 5 things I say on my most difficult days with mental illness… and what I really mean.
1. “I’m OK.”
When I’m struggling with mental illness, I’m not particularly enthusiastic about my life circumstances, but I don’t necessarily let on that I’m having difficulty, either. I often say that “I’m OK” or “I’m fine” when I’m at my lowest to avoid vulnerably speaking about my mental health. I may tell you that “I’m OK,” but the truth of the matter is that I’m certainly not OK. In these moments, ask if I’m really OK or question why I’m “just OK,” and I’ll be far more likely to open up about my mental illness and accept your support.
2. “I already ate.”
If I tell you that “I already ate” or that I’m simply not hungry, I most likely have not eaten all day. When I skirt questions about my eating habits, I am probably struggling through a depressive episode, grappling with body image issues, or slipping back into disordered eating, and I’m reaching for any possible reason not to nourish myself. If you notice that I haven’t been eating, even if I insist that I have, hold me accountable by gently encouraging me to eat. With some kind accountability for my eating habits, I’m likely to follow through with your request (and feel a bit better after I’ve sustained myself).
3. “I’ve got to go.”
If I’m at a gathering and insist that I have to leave, I’m likely battling social anxiety or sensory overload. When socializing becomes a struggle or my surroundings become too overwhelming, I tend to politely declare that it’s time for me to leave so that no one suspects I’m having difficulty managing my mental illness. If I leave your party early, please know that my actions don’t reflect poorly on you. I’m always thankful to be included and love spending time with you, but if I suddenly insist that “I’ve got to go,” my mental illness is calling, and I need some time away to refresh and recharge.
4. “It’s all too much.”
If I somewhat ambiguously admit that “It’s all too much,” I’m having a particularly rough time coping with the demands of my mental illnesses and their collective impact on my life. My mood is likely at an all-time low, my anxiety may have dramatically spiked, and I may be fighting to see the fulfilling aspects of my life. If you catch me admitting that “It’s all too much,” know that I’m slipping into a dark place and that more than anything, I need you. Check up on me, try to discern what specifically is overwhelming me, and show me compassion and empathy. Resolve to stay by my side until I reach a more manageable mental state. In those moments, I may not fully show how much I appreciate your presence, but your love in my darkest times means more to me than I can express.
5. “Thank you.”
It’s difficult for me to fully convey how much I appreciate love and support in my life with mental illness. Often, a simple “thank you” is laced with underlying meaning – an eternal sense of love and gratitude. “Thank you” means that I deeply appreciate your commitment to my health. It means that I am inexpressibly thankful that you’ve helped me through my darkest moments. It means that your kindness in the wake of my fluctuating mental health has left me unable to adequately convey how much you mean to me. If I thank you for your compassion throughout my mental health journey, please know that I adore your irreplaceable, kind spirit, appreciate your wholehearted empathy, and will unconditionally support you through your struggles, just as you unconditionally support me through mine.
Living with mental illness and coping with the prevalent mental health stigma may cause some to disguise the reality of their conditions behind perceived excuses or subtle mistruths. The next time you hear a loved one express that they’re coping well, check in with them. You may end up helping someone out of their darkest struggles with mental illness.
Previously published on The Mighty.