The common cold: A mental health analogy

Trying to get people to understand what it’s like to have a mental health problem who haven’t been there themselves is often a frustrating ‘banging your head against a brick wall’ experience. Understandably, people find it a very difficult concept to get there head around and stigma and invalidating, ill-informed senseless comments still linger around mental health such as ‘just get over it’ and ‘stop being so selfish’ etc.

Imagine yourself having a cough/cold. Or the flu,what you percieve to be the flu. Fluctuating between being bunged up and that endless stream of tears and (to be frank) snot (where does it all come from?!). How tiresome life becomes. How hard simple tasks can be. To you, you feel awful. You don’t want to do anything but get better. That is your body’s insticts kicking in. Rest, please rest. I will fight this illness if you rest. 

Now try and imagine how other people view you. Have you ever heard people say it’s ‘just a cold’ or ‘get over it’?

Imagine how you perceive other people with a cold? A bit of you may feel sorry for them, but is there some part of you that thinks ‘We all get colds, can’t you just get on with it?’.

My point is, what you see from the outside, is rarely what it feels like from in the inside for someone else. A cold is obviously different, in that every one has had a cold. Hence the ‘common’ cold. So empathy is a little easier.

Trying to empathize with something you have never felt is near impossible. It works with physical illness too. I am fortunate enough to have never suffered from cancer, or a heart attack or a stroke etc. etc. I don’t know what it feels like to experience these, I can’t even imagine. BUT what I can do is listen. Not judge, I’ve not been there. Try and let go of my preconceptions. The closest you can get to understanding something you haven’t experienced is to listen to the words of someone who has.

Listen. Take it for what it is, not what you think it is.

Where to start..

‘That’s quite common with.. borderline personality disorder’ The words fall of my therapists tongue slowly and awkwardly. She watches me closely to see how I react to her words. I nod, knowingly.

Two years ago, a young doctor diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder (BPD).  He sat but a yard from me in his pristine shirt and tie, tucked neatly into his lined trousers with one leg bent at a right angle, balanced almost arrogantly on the other. I suppose trying to appear relaxed in this rigid setting. His face was sincere and agreeing.

I could tell as I spoke and answered his questions his mind was whirring at a million miles per minute, putting things together. Figuring me out. He was an intelligent man and when at the end of the hour he came to his conclusion, I actually felt a little relieved. He explained the disorder to me, he explained the feelings associated and referenced some of the things I had mentioned to him. The diagnosis fit where no other had before and actually made some sense to me. I nodded, solemnly, trying to hide the chaos from my face. I’d heard of the disorder before and I wasn’t sure if this felt like a conviction or an explanation at the time. He escorted me out of the room in silence, him pleased to have found a diagnosis and me weighted by it.

Now, two years later as my new therapist uses the word’s so uncomfortably, I realize just how alive the stigma still is. How reluctant even mental health professionals are to use the words, afraid of it’s implications.

I slip in and out of denial and acceptance so readily with this disorder. I know it is me, it fits like a glove. But the stigma drives me away from it from time to time. That frightens me. The disorder doesn’t, I am not actually ashamed by the disorder but society forces me into retreat and secrecy over my diagnosis.

‘Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.’ J. K. Rowling.