Some days my experience of mental illness is really hard on me. Some days it’s really hard on the people around me. It makes it so extra shitty knowing I’m hurting and disappointing the people who love me.
John Green published a book recently called Turtles All the Way Down. He has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and has talked about it in interviews and youtube videos, and the main character in the book deals with similar obsessive and debilitating “thought spirals” to John.
After reading all through the night, my heart broke open as the main character comes to a point of saying, “I knew now for sure. I wasn’t possessed by a demon. I was the demon” (pg 229). She has new insight into how her illness is hurting – how she is hurting – the people she loves and in that place of deep suffering her identity becomes totally consumed by her illness.
In my healthiest state, I can understand that the “demon” of illness is separate from my own identity, that I am not the diagnosis I have. Writing reflections like The Bear help me to articulate this separation, and reflections like Emotional Gifts help me to remember the important strengths I bring to my relationships. But in those darkest moments, which are usually when my choices and actions are hurting the people who love me, it’s hard to remember that distinction.
I know I can’t and shouldn’t blame myself for having this illness, but I also know I am responsible for my choices and actions. Sometimes my choices (even when they are influenced by illness) hurt the people around me. It’s important for me to acknowledge that the way I respond to illness is hard at times for the people who love me – and important to acknowledge the difference between this reality and equating myself with “the demon.”
John Green was asked on a reddit post, “Have you found a way to help your friends and family relate to your mental health struggles or a way to deal with it if they don’t?”
I think his answer gets at the heart of this need to acknowledge how my response to my illness is interconnected with the way those who are close to me experience it.
I think I wrote the book in part because I wanted to give people who care about me a way into the experience of obsessiveness. But even if they understand how hard it is for me, I still have to understand how hard and exhausting it can be for them when I’m not emotionally present in their lives in the way they need for me to be.
I don’t think there’s any easy way out of this problem. I think the best we can hope for is a kind of mutual empathy: The people who love me know that my psychic pain is real, and that it is difficult to manage, and I understand that it also negatively affects them. My commitment to them is to try to treat my health problem with consistency and care, and to pursue treatment when I am sick. Their commitment to me is to stick with me on that journey.
We need better support for people who are dealing with mental illness, but we also need better professional and social support for their loved ones (friends and family beyond just spouses/children). It doesn’t help anyone to treat people who are dealing with illness (physical or mental) like their actions and choices in response to their pain doesn’t impact others, or that those effects are trivial compared to the person’s own suffering.