Mental illness is not like a cold (mostly)

After a very long time, I have recently come to a painful realization: For a long time, I thought of my mental illness like a cold. Like a temporary inconvenience, something to be shrugged off.

When I have a cold, I usually feel better after a day or two, and I am tempted to jump back into action. That’s when the relapse happens — when I am feeling strong and proud, like I have vanquished my foe. Fortunately,┬ádespite my occasional bouts of foolishness, my body is healthy enough to still be able to fight off a cold.

I made the mistake of taking this mindset into my fight with depression. When I began to feel better, I figured I was healed! I don’t need this dumb diet, this lame meditation! I’m ready to post something┬ácontroversial on Facebook! I’m ready to keep up with the latest news! Ready to confront someone on the Internet who is wrong! I can power through this stress!

It took me years to recognize that anxiety is not the same as worry. Christians aren’t supposed to have anxiety, after all, so I must not be trusting God enough. This just added guilt to the burden I was carrying. When people tell you to “shake it off,” or “snap out of it,” it just adds to the feeling of failure.

When symptoms are external, other people usually step in. They say: You’re sick — go home and take care of yourself! When symptoms are inside your head, however, it’s far more difficult for a friend, community, or even a┬áspouse to “be there” for you. It’s hard to know what to say. It takes knowledge and wisdom, it takes transparency and vulnerability. A relationship or community like this is rare.

So I kept trying to power through my depression, never realizing that this regular exposure to fight-or-flight hormones was doing massive damage to my mind and brain. If untreated, the flu can turn into pneumonia and then into sepsis. This has killed very healthy people — and one of my heroes, Jim Henson.

Finally I have some to the point where I am able to form better habits and be open with enough people with my struggles. It’s humbling and painful. It still carries a stigma. Often I simply have to put up a front whenever I’m around people that really don’t understand. This is exhausting, and carries the danger of falling back into the old “I-can-do-this-alone” mentality.

There is no silver bullet solution to all this, just hard work. Medication can help, but it’s not a panacea.

If you are struggling with mental illness, find a community who understands. Humble yourself enough to do what you need to stay healthy and trust others with your struggle.

If you know someone with mental illness, learn about it. Be part of a community who understands and supports.