TW: Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicide
While writing, reading, and books are a main part of what I write about on here, I also want to talk about other things that affect me and others around me. In this post, I’m going to be using the term mental illness a lot, mainly because it’s an easily recognizable term. I want to clarify that I do believe that a mental illness is a brain illness, which means it is a physical illness even if it manifests in the intangible mind.
If you are a person with a mental illness, chances are you’ve had some silly things said to you about your illness from people who do not share your experiences. I’m sure I’ve even said some of those things, though I myself have depression and anxiety, because, hey, no one is perfect.
But I want to explain why some of these things can be bothersome, so here are three things that have been said to me in the last three years when I’ve revealed that I have depression/anxiety/panic attacks. These things came from well-meaning individuals, but I found myself feeling less empowered and uplifted and more misunderstood and alienated.
“I never thought you were depressed. You’re always so happy!”
I would like to introduce you to my Survival Mask. My Survival Mask makes it so that I can seemingly function in the world while dying on the inside. My Survival Mask helps me navigate day to day situations without turning into a blubbering pile of despair every time someone asks me how I am. I have stuff to do, and my Survival Mask helps me focus on getting those things done instead of focusing on how I terrible I feel. Each morning I create the mask and once I’m back in a safe space where I can wear my real emotions on my face, I take that mask and throw it against the wall, only to create a new one the next day.
I deserve a flipping Oscar for the amount of people I have fooled into thinking I am a positive, happy, optimistic, always bubbly person. I mean, I am, that’s mostly what the Real Me is like. But the Real Me is only achieved when my depression is under control thanks to medication and other therapies. And while I am open to talking about my mental illnesses, I don’t feel like sharing every problem they cause me all the time. I’m definitely in the camp of “fake it ’til you make it” and I try to live how I want to be, not necessarily how I am. The drawback is that wearing my Survival Mask is exhausting, so when I’m not wearing it, all I want to do is sleep. And not everyone can hide their depression, and really, none of us should have to. The stigma around mental illness is a big reason why most of us try.
If I tell you I have depression, what that means is I suffer from a mental illness that affects every moment of my life. I’m letting you in, lifting the mask, and I’m trusting you. You don’t have to tell me you didn’t know, because I meant for you to not know. But now that you do, I’m hoping you understand me a little more than you did a minute ago. If not, you can educate yourself here.
“Oh, you have anxiety/panic attacks? What about?”
While stress and upsetting situations can trigger/make me more susceptible to anxiety and panic attacks, neither require a source. Sometimes I just feel anxious. Sometimes I just have a panic attack. Both suck and zap me of energy and often leave me feeling fragile and vulnerable. I have learned, through therapy and continued education (which can be found here), how to deal with both in ways that work for me. I use a pressure point and breathing exercise, calming music, ASMR videos, and EMDR therapy (this video usually) to reduce anxiety, and sometimes these methods can keep me from falling into a panic spiral when I feel a panic attack coming on.
But for panic attacks that get to a point where those methods won’t work (or I’m not in a state that I can use them effectively), I often have to cocoon myself, which generally means I have to wrap myself up in blankets, stay in bed (my safe place), and sometimes receive comfort from a safe person. I’ve had one panic attack where I could not get to a safe space, was alone, and could not calm myself. It was so bad I started having suicidal thoughts. I knew I needed outside help, so my only option was to call 911. It was the right decision because the panic attack triggered an asthma attack, so I was in as much physical pain as I was mental pain.
But here’s the real problem with the question above: even if my anxiety/panic attack has a trigger, I’m not likely to tell you what it is. First, knowing that you think all anxiety/panic attacks have a source lets me know you are not a safe person to discuss them with. Second, unless you are already a trusted person with whom I’ve talked about this before, this question feels like prying. I know the intention is usually to help, to identify the problem and reassure me things are fine. But if you understood anxiety/panic attacks, you’d know that while I appreciate your sympathy, your reassurance isn’t actually helpful.
“Depressed? You shouldn’t feel bad about yourself. You’re great!”
Self-esteem has never been a problem for me. Being that I am a woman with a large quantity of fat on my body, the assumption might be that I have body image issues, but I don’t. I’ve always been bigger than other people even before I was fat and it’s never been something that bothered me in a lasting way. But self-esteem doesn’t have to be body related, it can be about my view of myself as a whole person.
To be completely honest, I am brazenly self-centered. I analyze everything I do, say, and think and I live in my own little world most of the time. I talk to myself and I enjoy talking about myself and sharing my thoughts and opinions. I am always intricately involved with whatever is going on with my brain, sometimes to the detriment of my communication skills. I’m compassionate and empathetic, loving and kind, but also cynical, sarcastic, and I can use my words as weapons. I’m extroverted and love to talk to people about things I enjoy, but I’m also introverted and enjoy being alone and can get annoyed when my solitary activities are interrupted. I can be extremely patient and extremely impatient. I am Type-A and can be an insufferable know-it-all. I know I am smart and capable of many things. I can come across as condescending and conceited, overly enthusiastic and loud, a bleeding heart, ditzy. I know I am awesome but I also know I’m not a perfect person. Either way, I do not feel bad about myself. I try to be my best self, which doesn’t always work, but I try, and that’s what matters most to me.
I am a person with depression but I do not have low self-esteem. While low self-esteem can accompany depression and sometimes the two can become intertwined, depression and low self-esteem are separate issues. I believe where the two become conflated is in the notion that depression lies to you about yourself, which is true for many people. But in my case, depression does so by taking over my feelings.
Depression makes me feel worthless, that no one loves me, that no one understands me, that I am utterly alone, and that dying would be better than continuing to live in such pain and turmoil. When depression takes over, I feel those things, but I don’t think them, because the me that does the thinking is Real Me and Real Me knows better. I can even hold two opposing ideas – feeling unloved but knowing I’m loved – in my head at the same time. I’ve been dealing with depression for over twenty years now, so while not all people with depression can, I am able to separate my thoughts and feelings from what depression puts in my head.
If I had to sum up in one phrase how to avoid statements and questions that make life more difficult for someone with a mental illness, I’d pick this:
Don’t assume anything.
There are many kinds of mental illnesses, and every person’s experience is different. If someone has trusted you enough to reveal that they have a mental illness, know that they don’t do so lightly. Do your best to be a support to the people in your life with mental illnesses. Help us end the stigma by breaking the cycle of misinformation and bad representation by educating yourself using the many sites and tools the internet provides.
Above all, set an example by treating us with the dignity, respect, and compassion we deserve as human beings.
If you or someone you know is suicidal, please contact