I don’t blame you because I get it. The reasons for your disbelief are complex and multi-faceted. For some of my guy friends, it’s the culture of “toxic masculinity” that tells you that “real men” don’t cry, let alone have depression. “Yeah right, ‘depression’ sure ok.”
The culture of toxic masculinity is killing our boys and men by the way, but that’s a topic for another day.
For others, you simply will always believe mental illness is nothing more than a character flaw. You will readily believe that something in your brain can go wrong causing you to develop Alzheimer’s. You accept that neurons can misfire and cause dementia or schizophrenia. You break out the science jargon when explaining the “love chemical” oxytocin. And you’ll accept that soldiers can get PTSD from watching women and children die. But depression? Anxiety? PTSD in a non-military person? Suddenly things change. Suddenly anybody that claims to have depression is just “sad” and needs to “get over it.” Depression is just “lack of will power. Laziness. Not praying enough.” “Everybody gets sad sometimes. Just be happy.” Someone having severe anxiety really is just lying, or is weak. You’ll say, “My dad used to beat me within an inch of my life. And I turned out fine.”
To that I say great. Fantastic. Your brain isn’t misfiring. Your fight or flight response doesn’t get stuck in the on position. Wonderful. In truth, our brains are more powerful than any super computers. And sometimes our super computers fail. Yet you won’t believe that those very same super computers that invented geometry and theoretical physics can go through a traumatic experience, trigger a predisposition, misfire, and cause depression or anxiety, or that something other than war can cause PTSD. Just like bad habits can trigger heart disease, so too can trauma trigger mental illness. Something turned on that switch for me, and not for you. That’s all that happened.
***Mental illness is even more complicated than we know! We are learning more and more every day. It’s real, it’s complicated, and it’s not a matter of simply “being weak.” This theory states that neurogenesis, or the creation of neurons, helps cure depression. Furthermore, that the reason SSRI’s work might not be due to raising serotonin levels, but rather in promoting neuron growth! Or this study that shows how stress in your environment can lead to inflammation in your body, which can lead to brain changes and the development of mental illness.
This study shows that anxiety might be inherited from your parents and actually changes your brain right from the start. Finally, this study shows how environment, background, brain function, and stress hormones can all overlap and lead to depression and other mental illness. The point here is that mental illness is real, real complicated, and can’t be simplified down to “being weak.” We just don’t know, and are learning more and more every day.***
But it’s not your fault that you don’t believe. Your life experiences and your brain’s wiring have led you to a place where mental illness isn’t real. And that’s alright. I’m just grateful for my ridiculously supportive wife. My family. My friends. My friend Dese’Rae, creator of Live Through This, which focuses on suicide attempt survivors. Jenny and #TheBloggessTribe who also gave me the courage to finally finish this effin’ thing and post it, albeit under a relatively anonymous blog.
Mental illness can feel overwhelming. Debilitating. Terribly lonely. You will feel like you’re the only one going through this. Nobody else gets it. You, and only you, has experienced pain like this. But that’s not true. Millions of people around the country have broken brains. Hundreds of millions around the world.
And the good news is that you can do something about it. And no, I’m not talking about praying it away or smiling it away. Not talking about “just be happy, lighten up. It could be worse.” Can’t hurt to pray or meditate. But it won’t cure a mental illness. No, what we can do about it is that we can talk about it. On a macro level, we can bring awareness. Awareness and facts. Remove the prejudice and bias that many in society have against mental illness. Show people that we’re not crazy or “just weak.” And on a micro level, we can talk to mental health professionals, and we can take SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor). If we choose not to do that because we’ve heard it fails for some or makes things worse for others, there are other options and ideas. We can realize and accept that this is real, not our fault, and is fixable. It won’t be easy. When depression tells you that all you want to do is stay in bed all day because “why bother?” or when anxiety makes you afraid of everything, it won’t be easy to get the help you need. But you can do it. One step at a time.
As for me, all I can do is lean on friends and family when the darkness comes, keep taking the meds, see the shrinks, and hope the clouds stay away until they don’t.
If you are having a mental health crisis and need someone to talk to, please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
What’s been your experience with mental illness? How does it manifest in you? Or maybe in someone you love? If you’re comfortable sharing, leave a comment below. And share this post if you think it’ll help anyone, if only in that it might help them to know they are not alone.
(well this felt good. Who knows, my 70 followers might get another blog entry in 2017 just yet. 🙂 )
***EDIT: After consulting with several mental health advocates, a doctor, and even a neuroscientist, even more info/links were added to this entry as causes for mental illness, showing how biology plays a role but also environment and experiences.***
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