Let’s play pretend.
Imagine you’re vacuuming your carpet. The room is big, the carpet’s a mess, and your vacuum cleaner is loud. Twenty minutes later, you’re finished, and when you turn off the vacuum, your ears start ringing. The ringing is so loud that you can barely hear your loud music playing. You call me later, and say “Yeah, my ears were ringing so loud earlier, I could hardly hear!”
I felt my phone vibrate, but I quite literally can’t hear you. I’ve been at a concert for two hours, standing in front of several giant speakers. I yell into the phone, “I can’t hear you. My ears are ringing and I can’t hear right now.”
You say “Oh, yeah, my ears were ringing earlier, too. I could barely hear.”
Not hearing a thing, I yell over you: “I’m really sorry, I can’t hear you, my ears are really ringing. It’s loud. I can’t hear anything.”
You cluelessly continue, saying, “Right, that’s what just happened to me!” And you go right on and talk about your day as if I can hear you perfectly, when everything I’ve said adds up to “I can’t hear anything at all.”
All you heard was “My ears are ringing”, and you immediately assumed you knew my experience and that really I was exaggerating, and I could still hear, because ringing ears is an average human experience It doesn’t usually make you deaf, at least not for long. You assume.
Now. If you had known that I was at a giant concert for two hours, standing in front of speakers, you would have had context and understood that I truly could not hear anything because the ringing in my ears was so loud. Clearly, in this metaphor, the deafness at a concert is a feeling or experience during mental illness and the ringing ears after vacuuming is a feeling in normal human experience. The two experiences are described in similar words but are not the same. The context provides your indication of severity. Maybe you’ve been temporarily deafened at a punk rock concert yourself, and do actually understand the experience once you have that context. If you do understand that context, you’re not going to think that everyone goes temporarily deaf when they vacuum.
One version of ringing ears is uncomfortable and disconcerting for a little while. The other is literally disabling. If you know someone is mentally ill and they’re currently having symptoms, keep in mind that they may have been at a rock concert that day. Or week. Or maybe even for a long time.
When talking about my symptoms gets a response of “Everyone feels that way,” I’m being accidentally stripped of my dignity. You’re telling me that everyone else is valid and I am not. That I am horribly wrong as a human being for not being able to handle the feelings I have, because you think you have those exact feelings, too. This does not solely rest on the individual who makes this mistake: our language is inadequate. Feelings have only one common set of descriptive words. For me, the word “paranoia” has vastly different connotations than neurotypical people’s experience of paranoia.
You can relate. And that’s great. I mean that sincerely.
But don’t tell me that my struggles with symptoms are unwarranted responses. I’m doing the very best I can, I promise you. I try so, so hard. I work full-time on my health. So when someone comes along and tells me that everything I experience is felt in the same way by everyone else, too, and they just deal with it and move on, they’re telling me that other people (neurotypical people) are succeeding where I am failing. It is so, so hard to dig myself out of the hole of believing that I am a less valid human who is utterly broken and horribly ugly inside. When I express that, I’m told I’m having a pity party. That makes me feel more ugly and broken, and I become disgusted with myself. I wish I could rip off my skin. I can see that I clearly am not only defective but shouldn’t still be alive. I believe my parents are good people, but maybe they’re not, because they’ve been keeping me a secret, that I’m the worst person in the world and it should literally be a crime not to kill me once you know what I am. Why haven’t they killed me? What do they say about me when I’m not around? Do they talk about how disgusting and defective I am? Why haven’t they turned me in? The police could be coming. I wonder if my parents will turn against me. If the police decide to arrest me instead of shoot me, I’d be found out by the other inmates and killed, so at least there’s an escape if I get to that point. I hear sirens. Are they coming this way? Should I run away? I wouldn’t know where to go. I’ll just start walking…
Go ahead. Tell me that’s paranoia and catastrophizing.
Well, no shit. I know that. I can see that perfectly clearly when I’m stable. But knowing you have a problem doesn’t make that problem solved. I have a leaky pipe in my backyard, but knowing it’s leaky doesn’t make it fixed. And I sure don’t know how to fix it by myself. That’s what professionals are for. My problems are no different.
So don’t come over and say “Your pipe is broken” and think that you’ve just changed my life for the better.
I’m already working with multiple professionals to solve the pipe problem, and we knew it was broken approximately 14 years ago.
By the way, that long paranoid rant? That is taken directly from an episode I had in May of 2019. None of that was creative license. I recall it very clearly, and even writing it down made me feel pretty horrible. I’ll do some meditating on my safe place from EMDR before I try to finish this article.
Aaaand I’m crying.
Neurotypical people often hear language that they think they relate to and jump straight to trying to convince you that “everyone feels that way”. As a disabled person, this is a very frustrating, Abled-splaining thing, and it comes up more often than any other interpersonal communication issue. And by the way, general audience, every single human being has depression and anxiety. Don’t tell people you’re mentally ill and claim an identity that can be hell just because you have poor mental health and horrible, painful, normal human feelings. Normal people want to kill themselves sometimes, in their darker moments. That’s an average human experience. Hopefully rare, but completely average. People with Depressive Disorders and Anxiety Disorders, who are incapacitated or even disabled by it, who could suffer for years, take medication, see doctors, work with therapists, be hospitalized, and attempt or commit suicide are sick to death of people claiming to have a mental illness just because they have had struggles with depression and anxiety. I think it is logically fair to say that disorders, illnesses, and disabilities are different than an average life experience.
Humans have terribly hard feelings sometimes. All humans deal with depression and anxiety, and usually, it’s situational and will be resolved when your negative situation is resolved. Those are feelings that everyone DOES have. And while every person’s feelings are valid, and depression and anxiety are horrible, don’t invalidate a mentally ill person’s experience by relating it to perfectly normal, horrible, human feelings. You’re not stronger than I am just because you’re not disabled by your brain. I promise you.
You wouldn’t last a week in my brain, even during partial remission.
It would be unfair of me to tell you where you are wrong without telling you how to make it right.
What I would prefer to hear over “Everyone feels that way” includes the following:
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Or simply say you’re busy and go away.
And then I can go and be by myself somewhere and won’t need anyone’s help outside of my personal, world-class, highly specialized support network (love you guys). I’m often much better having an episode by myself. Interacting with other people during an episode is ineffective because I can’t communicate correctly, which makes the experience more intense and humiliating, and if I try to tell someone outside of my support network, they may say the dreaded words: “Everyone feels that way sometimes.” Or even “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself.” It can be humiliating and lead to suicidal ideation. Alone is much safer. Feeling safe is paramount.
There are other things you can say if you want to offer care, which is wonderful and lovely, but I hold no animosity against those who don’t want to. Everyone has reasons for everything they do, and you can’t know what’s on another person’s heart. Sometimes, helping sick people can trigger strong feelings that a person doesn’t want to feel, and I respect that and try to get away from them as quickly as possible. Adding the feeling that I’m making someone else miserable to an already painful situation could send me into full-blown psychosis. If you let me know that I’m making you feel bad, I may cut communication altogether until my health levels out again, because that’s a simpler and more realistic solution than discussing it with you during an episode, which would make me worse and ultimately be ineffective and cause damage to our relationship. I can’t bear being a burden. It’s one of my biggest thought-struggles. If I’m a burden, there are only a few mental steps until I’m dead (and deserve to be).
Back on track. Where was I?
Things you can say to offer assistance include:
“Your brain is lying to you.”
Yes, it is okay, and in fact good, to tell me that I am completely and utterly wrong sometimes. If I believe horrible things, tell me why I’m wrong. Tell me my brain is lying and no one else believes whatever it is that is hurting me so much. Tell me in what ways I’m not making sense. I don’t know how other people with mental disabilites would feel about this, but for me, it’s hugely helpful. A person’s feelings can be validated (“I’m sorry, that’s painful,”) even while they’re being debunked (“but no one believes that about you/life/themselves/the world.”)
“This will pass.”
“Breathe.” (Why do we always forget to breathe?)
“Can I help?”
“Do you need to take a pill?”
“Do you need to call someone?”
“Do you need to go home?”
It is horribly humbling writing about my disabilities sometimes. It physically hurts. Even though I’m just sitting here with a computer screen and writing my own, chosen words from my own, little head, I can remember so many instances of someone making me feel defective, broken, disgusting, worthless, wasteful, vain, petty, and self-centered during an episode. Even while I’m stable, these memories sit heavy inside my chest, like a cold ball of lead. I want to be a good person, do good things, and help people around me. I want to see myself as a good person and be seen as a good person. I work hard every day to deserve that assessment, both from myself and others.
That’s why I’m lashing out in this article. I want justice for all of the people who have been told “Everyone feels that way, they just deal with it and move on. It’s not a big deal. Get over yourself”, who have then fallen into the belief that they are worthless, more than hopeless, worse than vile, and should end their lives rather than continue to be a disgusting, broken burden on those around them.
I’m sure that sounds hyperbolic to some neurotypical people, but to people with mental-illness-related disabilities, it probably causes a cold lump in the chest, just like the one I have now.
Even now, I feel like I am fighting off enemy combatants, and that this article will be received by the public at large telling me exactly the things I am advocating against. I am fragile in some ways and enormously strong in others. But this is my underbelly, exposed. I may be broken if this article falls on deaf ears, or if the people who have been accidentally damaging in the past decide that they want to double down on their hurtful and inaccurate opinions, even after all I’ve said.
For the people who struggle with being told “Everyone feels that way,” I want you to know that I see you. I see all the lies your brain tells you, and I can see how badly those lies hurt. I know that there are other people, with only a vague idea of your problem, who will come along and exacerbate your already tenuous situation with misunderstandings from which you cannot defend yourself. They may even do it with hostility in their hearts, and that is a wound that you will bear alone. Don’t let it drive you to harm. I am so sorry that our language for feelings does not include words for the experiences we have; perhaps if we had a different set of words that matched our different emotions, neurotypical people wouldn’t misunderstand and (intentionally or unintentionally) be so cruel.
Each moment is new. If you fail, you can be redeemed. If you’ve dismissed someone’s feelings and now feel guilty: don’t. You don’t need to. That moment is over, and time has forgiven you by offering you new moments. If this happened with me, specifically, you have also been forgiven. Just please don’t do it again, to me or anyone else with a mental illness.
I wrote this article in self-defense and in defense of people with severe mental illness who have been through the same thing. The wonderful thing about writing is that you can summon and then purge a feeling that is haunting you. And now, I have an article that I can easily pull up on my phone and show to anyone.
Thank you for listening. It’s one of the most powerful things people can do.