I was asked in a job interview a couple of questions that led to me talking about our battle with depression, OCD, and Anxiety. I was then later asked in a follow up if I thought those things hindered my job, would prevent me from working, and one of my references was asked the same thing. I wonder, if it would have come out that I struggled with asthma, would the same questions have been asked? If I had talked about Valentine having diabetes or some other life long health complication, would it have been a factor in deciding whether or not I could be employed? My guess is no.
Because we struggle with illnesses deemed "mental" we seem to fall in a whole different category, one that is filled with stigma and shame. That is unfair and a gross mischaracterization of what we deal with. I hate the word mental, and all it stands for in our current society. The illness of depression, anxiety, OCD, and the others are physical, no matter what Tom Cruise would like to say about it.
You can google and research the actual goings on of these diseases in the brain, I'm not going to get into that. I will just share with you, the very physical aspects that we deal with. For the sake of comparison, I will match it up with asthma, as that is something I have dealt with since I was younger, both through friends and also from my own experience with what it does to my body.
My asthma is mild,didn't really start to be a problem until high school, and though I rarely experience symptoms of it anymore, it still flares up. I used to treat it, when it was more serious, with medication. I knew what triggered my asthma, and I tried to avoid those triggers and used preventative medication. When attacks were triggered, I employed the steps prescribed by my doctor to deal with it. Sometimes though it caught me off guard, I wasn't prepared, or even though I was prepared it just overwhelmed me, and I was not able to fight off the attack very well. I was fortunate and did not have to be hospitalized. I had a good friend when I was younger though, that was hospitalized often. She took the steps, she did what she needed to do, but it overwhelmed her system, and she became helpless at points to fight on her own. No one considered her, or myself weak when these things happened. No one judged us, or our families for these asthma attacks. People felt badly that we were experiencing them, they offered help etc. Our families could discuss our asthma openly with others and learn how others dealt with the same issues. They could seek help or unload to others about what they were experiencing with us, and we could do the same, with no shame or fear. We were obviously past the days mentioned in the old "Arthur" episode, where everyone thinks buster has some shareable disease because he has asthma. It was seen as a problem, but normal, and no one needed to hide it, in fact a lot of the kids in our classes had inhalers too.
I wish those days were here with mental illness. Maybe Marc Brown can do some special new episodes of "Arthur" for all of us. The Brain can reveal that he as OCD/Anxiety and Depression, and we can find out that Binky Barnes struggles with Bipolar disorder. They can do a fun little cartoon that shows things misfiring in their brains, and chemical compositions not being at correct levels. Everyone can see that it's not contagious (although we could include something about their parents or grandparents struggling as well, and we can see it's hereditary). Then the whole gang can talk about it, learn to support them when they are struggling, and get over it. It can be alluded to in future episodes as part of their everyday lives. That would be awesome.
Besides the physical causes of the illness that Valentine deals with, there are very physical symptoms. I have laid in bed with him, a foot away, and felt his heart pounding. This was after a good day, after a day when there were no triggers, when he was taking his meds, and had recently been to therapy. Still the illness overtook him. I have seen the changes in his facial expressions, heard the edge in his voice, and experienced behaviors that totally do not fit with his personality at all, when the depression overwhelms him. There are very physical changes to how he feels in other parts of his body, his stomach, his head. All of these things can come at times when he is responsibly treating his illness. Sometimes his body just can't take anymore, or he has grown tolerant to the meds, or a trigger hits unexpectedly. It is physical.
Yet we still can't just talk about it, we can't always share. We worry that people will think we can't function or work, but we can. He may need a sick day here or there, but so do you and I. He handles these things very, very responsibly, and he works hard to manage. There are times when it gets bad. We get overwhelmed, so overwhelmed at times, when things are bad, and meds, coping techniques and therapy just aren't enough. He works hard to keep going, working, being there for the kids, all the while feeling like he is going to crumble. I work hard to help him keep going, to encourage him, and to keep everyone else going in the family, while I am scared and sad for him. In those moments it's really, really hard. It's hard to get out of bed, to get dinner on the table, to get the house cleaned. It's exhausting. Sometimes I share with others. There are a few people I will text or email for prayer. Even then, with the exception of a couple, I vary who they are. I don't want to overburden them with something they will feel helpless to battle too. I get worried that we will be the people who cried wolf, or I will be labeled a drama queen, if I text too much. Or worse, I worry that they will start to see Val through depression colored glasses, and forget what an amazing person he is. No one shows up with casseroles or cookies to help us through this tough time, most people don't even know we are having it (this is not a plea for casseroles, we really don't like casseroles anyway).
I wish we could take the words mental illness, off of these problems. I wish they could just be classified in general conversations as illness. Health problems, like any other. I wish we could speak freely. I know people that struggle with diabetes, asthma, Parkinson's, cancer, and so many other illnesses, have problems speaking about them too. They too can be embarrassed, can worry about how people will see them, but I feel like when the word mental is attached it ups the ante. Words like crazy get thrown around, not lapel ribbons. There are so many people around us struggling with these same things, yet we struggle in isolation and fear.
When we do share, sometimes people react strongly. I always hope that if they are uncomfortable or don't understand, they will ask questions, maybe not in an job interview, but still ask. I hope they will be reassured to find out, it's not contagious, we are regular functioning people, who are quite talented and bright by the way. I hope they will still see Valentine as the amazing Valentine that he is, and me as his awesome wife. I hope life will go on as normal. If they want to check in on us, ask how we are doing from time to time, that's cool too. I don't mind friends checking in, holding us accountable even, making sure we are taking care of ourselves. That is fine. That is normal.
I guess that's what I want is normal. I want people to realize these diseases, disorders, illnesses, whatever you want to call them, associated with the brain, are physical illnesses just like all the others. They deserve no more stigma and shame than any others. Is Marc Brown still making Arthur? Can we get some after school specials, cause I really don't want to start wearing a ribbon.