Trigger Warning: This blog post mentions chronic pain/illness, mental illness (specifically depression and anxiety), and suicide. If any of these are triggers for you, please don’t feel obligated to keep reading. My ego will live.
A lot of people will tell you that “I love you” or “I’m sorry” are some of the hardest words to say. I won’t argue that: those words can be extremely difficult. But for me, they are not at the top of my list. The three words I have always had (and, I suspect, will always have) difficulty stringing together aren’t even complicated. Four syllables altogether, easy enough to say separately, but together, one after the other? My stomach gets knotted, my throat goes dry, my tongue glues itself to the roof of my mouth, my palms get clammy with sweat, and my head throbs and spins. I’m miserable and ashamed and I hate it. The three words that draw that reaction?
“I’m not okay.”
Yep. That’s it. Thing is, no matter how much progress we’ve made as a society, there is still stigma attached to illnesses like depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and so many other mental illnesses or disorders we can’t understand. And nobody wants to feel like a burden on their friends, family, and significant others. These things make it even harder to talk about how we’re doing, but we have to, because these problems do not go away on their own.
In the interest of full disclosure: I don’t have a diagnosed mental illness. I have a chronic pain condition, and it’s not uncommon for depression and anxiety to ride along, because guess what? Not being able to function like a “normal,” healthy person your age tends to bum a person out, to say the least.
Learning to talk about what I’m experiencing has been and is an ongoing process. Some days, I know it’s just not gonna work, and I can tell people, “Okay, my mood is off, so if I withdraw, please draw me out of myself.” Some days, it’s all blocked up inside, and it’s all I can do to pretend like things are fine. That isn’t the right thing to do, and I know it, but like I said: ongoing process. Telling someone that you’re not okay is not a thing that comes easily to most of us, in my experience.
One hard truth that I think we all learn is that not everybody who asks “Hey, how’re you doing?” actually wants the full, detailed answer. For most acquaintances, a quick “Not too bad, you?” is what’s expected, and it’s enough. And besides, in some cases, it’s just none of their damned business. But there are some people we shouldn’t be hiding these things from. It hurts the relationship (whether friendship, parent/child, lovers, whatever), and it hurts ourselves, because we’re then even more alone in what we’re feeling.
Guess what? People will usually assume that you’re okay, unless they know you aren’t. And seeing as human beings have yet to perfect mind reading, we have to tell each other ourselves. It’s hard, I won’t lie, but it’s important. In my case, it’s what kept me alive. If I hadn’t managed to tell just one person that something was very, very wrong, I wouldn’t be alive today. That’s not melodrama, that’s fact. I would have become another statistic, another teenager lost too soon, another funeral with family and friends weeping and saying “I don’t understand, she seemed fine…” And I didn’t want to be that. So I had to learn to talk about it.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that it can be as simple as one person. As long as there is someone out in this big old world that you can talk to, someone who will listen without judgement, who will help you when needed, who will understand, you’re making a step in the right direction. I started there: one friend, then another, then another. Little by little, I opened up about what had led to my not only considering but planning suicide, and explained as best as I could what had been going on for me at the time.
Then it was a matter of the day to day. Anything from developing a code word for days when my body and brain were both fighting me and neither would work (the word I used was mango), to just being able to say, “I’m sorry, but you’re gonna have to cook and do dishes tonight, because I can’t.” A more simple mechanism I’ve taken to using, particularly with new people (like the woman I’ve started seeing, and hope to be seeing for a while), is telling them that as long as I’m still joking, I’m fine. And that’s true. Humour is my coping mechanism for just about everything. If I can still crack jokes, no matter how bad, I may be feeling rough, but I’m getting by. When I stop cracking jokes, there’s a problem.
It took time to go from those few people I could trust to telling the internet about it via blogging and Twitter, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s not an easy discussion to have, and it’s not something I talk about daily. Laying yourself bare to countless people, day in and day out, on the internet may help some, but it’s going to wear you down. Like so much else in life, you have to pick your battles. Choose the soapboxes you stand on, the storms you weather, the games you sit out. Don’t hurt yourself while trying to help others. Talk about the topics you can talk about, admit it when it’s a topic you can’t handle. There should be no shame in that, but there should be no more total silence about these things, either. I know I’m done keeping quiet about how I’m really doing, at least with the people who matter. Find that one person you can trust. Tell them what’s really on your mind. Don’t pretend to be okay when you’re not. Nobody can help if nobody knows.