What -Insert Illness- Looks Like

I’ve got a number of thoughts here that I’ve talked about at various times, and they all sort of tie together so here it is.

This is what depression can look like.

I came across this image a couple times today on Facebook, so I imagine it’s going a bit viral. “This is what depression looks like.” But, no. This is what depression CAN look like.

To me, wording matters. Others will say things like “Oh you get the gist of it, stop being so petty.” But I do truly believe wording matters. What we put out there is out there for people to interpret, and if we’re lucky, they interpret it right. But you can tell a lot about implications by the way things are worded.

For instance – a passive voice vs active voice. “Active voice means that a sentence has a subject that acts upon its verb. Passive voice means that a subject is a recipient of a verb’s action.” By choosing whether the verb or the noun is emphasized, you can strengthen or soften the message. “A well-known local politician is facing fraud charges,” vs “Fraud charges have been brought against a well-known local politician.” In one, the focus is the person, in the other the focus is the charges. It may seem minor, but it changes perception.

When exaggerated language is used needlessly, it can mean the difference between proper understanding and misinformation. Alternatively, sometimes diminishing language is used when it shouldn’t be, such as “I sort of feel…” And this is one that I do myself, frequently, because it softens what I’m saying. Sometimes I really shouldn’t be softening what I’m saying, and I diminish myself and my stance in the process.

More and more frequently, especially with the extensive public exposure to suicide by celebrities or children, people are becoming aware of depression and what a serious issue it is. That’s fantastic. People need to be aware and stigma absolutely needs to be removed from mental illness.

But just like so many things in life, I sort of really feel that there’s this need for control that people have and when it comes to issues like mental illness and suicide, the issues are complicated. They can’t always go in that one little box. You can’t make a checklist and say, “As long as I check off everything on this list, nobody I know will kill themselves.”

There is more than too much guilt to go around for those left behind by suicide, already.

A friend committed suicide a few years ago. We knew each other online only, but we were part of a community that had stuck together for a lot of years. We all leaned on each other a lot during hard times, when we couldn’t talk to anyone else, when we needed to vent. We shared a lot of triumphs and joys, we watched each others kids grow up. Even though we didn’t see each other face to face, we knew each other very well. She had had a rough couple of years, very rough all around – in terms of physical health, mental health, finances, all-around security… and looking backwards, of course we all saw the signs. The things that seemed normal at the time suddenly weren’t. I wished I’d seen it. We all wished we’d seen it. But the truth was, in the end, she didn’t want us to. She didn’t ask for advice or a shoulder to cry on. She didn’t give anyone the chance to change her mind, and she knew we would’ve done anything we could to stop her. She knew we loved her. In the end, that was what comforted me, knowing that she knew we cared enough to stop her and I really believe that is why she didn’t let us.

Depression can hide behind smiles and laughter. Depression can look like laziness. It can look like fatigue. It can look like arrogance. But the thing is, none of those things point only to depression either, and sometimes the depressed individual doesn’t even realize themselves that they’re suffering from it.

So yes, delete that picture in your mind that says that depression means crying in bed for 16 hours a day with your un-washed sweats plastered on your un-showered body laying on your filthy sheets. Yes, understand that “functional” depression exists. Understand that we need to treat people with kindness and understanding, that checking in once in a while is great, that everyone needs some form of community and support. Do the things. Be a good friend. Be a good relative. Be a kind person. Do it because people deserve it. Do it to make people’s lives better for having you in them. Give. Listen. Support. Understand. Validate people’s feelings. Do all the things, give all the things you are able to give. The things that a good person should. And if you need that support, seek it out, because it’s so important.

And here’s the part that people really, by nature, hate… understand that it’s ultimately out of your hands. You will not always be able to look at a person and see their struggles. You will have to reach out sometimes, you will have to check in, you will have to be someone’s support. You will have to care enough to ask if they are okay. And sometimes, sometimes… they will tell you they’re okay when they aren’t. Because people, and illness, and life itself is unpredictable.

Some people with depression…
– cannot get out of bed. Some can.
– cannot keep a job. Some can.
– cannot eat. Some can.
– cannot stop eating. Some can.
– self harm. Some don’t.
– are suicidal. Some aren’t.
– take medication. Some don’t.
– have more bad days than others
– have more support systems than others…

…point is that depression is not universal and while there is a general cluster of symptoms, it manifests differently in everyone. You can’t always spot depression on the street, in the grocery store, or at the gym. Depression doesn’t always jump out at you and let you know there is a person who is hurting deeply. Don’t contribute to stigmatization.

Source unknown to me – if you know who wrote this, please advise!

Beyond that, all of that, is the notion that “something” must “look like” something.

“You (or your child, your relative, your friend…) don’t look depressed/bipolar/autistic/chronically ill.”

It’s gotten to be a peeve. “You don’t look mentally ill.” Really? What does “mentally ill” look like, exactly? Answer me that, please. “You don’t look sick.” Please, do tell me what my sickness is meant to look like, I’m listening.

Sometimes, I imagine, it’s truly a misguided attempt at a compliment. “Way to go, you, you look so normal, you fit right in, good job!”

Sometimes, though, I feel it’s meant (and it nearly always comes across to me) as invalidation. “Why are you complaining? Why are you slacking? Why are you lazy? Why can’t you smile more? Why do you seem so cranky? Why are you acting tired? Why can’t you talk to me? Stop being so difficult!”

And that’s really it. Stop. Being. So. Difficult. You’re making things hard for me.

Here’s a real one I got once, the one final push that made up my mind to stop medicating myself and sent me into a decade long downward spiral. “I don’t think you’re bipolar, so-and-so is bipolar and you’re nothing like her, you seem just fine.” I was fine, because I was medicated. After that, not so much, and this particular person did get to see some of the crazy that came along with my illness, in time. But I felt I lost a decade to a brain sickness that people told me I didn’t have or could control if I was stronger, and I wanted to stop feeling pressured. I shouldn’t have listened, but I didn’t know better, and now I do.

Everyone has a story. Everyone is living their story, and you may play a part, big or small.

If you truly want to understand, ask.

And then really, really listen.

The struggling people around you will be ever so grateful.

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