Several years ago I received a call from a friend of mine who wanted to tell me she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a rather traumatic diagnosis for her to hear. Certainly life threatening, but also treatable. I was impressed with how she dealt with it. She made cancer her enemy and did everything she could to fight against it. And you know what? She beat it. She is now over 15 years cancer free.
What I’ve learned about mental illness is that it is also life threatening. From the first time I experienced suicidal thoughts as a sophomore in college to the relentless dogging of “you should just kill yourself” tapes that played in my mind a few years ago. I learned from the time I was twenty years old that depression was and will continue to be my number one enemy. It threatens my life and makes me vulnerable at times to the hopeless thoughts that wander aimlessly into my brain.
The difference between cancer and mental illness is that there is a cure for many types of cancer. There’s no such thing for mental illness of any kind. Of course there are medications that make it more tolerable, but nothing that takes away all of the symptoms. It’s a fight. Sometimes a daily battle and other times an intermittent harsh reality of living with a chronic illness.
If you ask most people if they were afraid of cancer they would say, “yes.” No one wants to get cancer. But people are afraid of mental illness for all the wrong reasons.
Many people have no concept of what it’s like to suffer from so much anxiety a person can’t leave their house. People still believe a person with depression just isn’t trying hard enough and he’s just plain lazy. Those with bipolar disorder are labeled as trouble makers and moody. People with schizophrenia – just plain crazy.
When my friend went to the doctor for her breast cancer consultation, I went with her. As a matter of fact, I jumped on a 2 hour plane flight to go to her doctor appointments with her. I wanted to show support. I wanted her to know she wasn’t alone in the fight against her number one enemy. The disease that was threatening to take her away from all of us much to soon.
This is how we all should rally around those who are struggling with mental illness. The enemy is not the person who has the illness. The enemy is the mental illness. It’s the disease that causes an interference in thinking, emotions and behavior. It affects the most important organ in our entire body – the brain.
Yet, those who have mental illness are often left to fend for themselves. Especially when they aren’t fun anymore. When the struggle is the most difficult and support is truly needed, many are left isolated and alone. That isolation leads to a worsening of symptoms. A more complex illness.
I want people to know that my bipolar disorder is a serious life threatening illness. I manage it well. But the moment I let my guard down, the minute I miss a day of taking medication, the days I don’t get enough sleep, is when the enemy threatens my life and everything I have worked hard for. The enemy nearly destroyed me and I’m not going to let that happen again.
I just wish everyone knew mental illness is the enemy. And if we are not diligent it will continue to steal our loved ones from us in one shape or form or the other. Sometimes the difference is having a team to fight the illness with us.
The next time your loved one complains of depression symptoms or has a panic attack, offer compassion and a kind word. Sometimes all it takes is saying, “Are you okay? How can I help?”