It isn't stressed enough how frightening mental illness can be (and almost always is) to those who experience it. Fear can range from a creeping nervousness to pure terror – often sliding back and forth across its own fear spectrum without ever stopping. The bouts of calm are few and far between. And, still, it is just a calm before the next storm. And I want to stress it again: mental illness is frightening. And invalidating a person's feelings or perceptions makes it all the more scary.
Because not everyone's minds work the same, I can only speak for myself in this post – but I know that there are people out there who will be able to relate. Lately, I have felt under attack. Am I under attack? I honestly do not know. There are few ways that I know how to reach out to others when I am in this state of mind, and the ways I do know how to reach out seem to always backfire on me. Everyone needs reassurance and positive attention – some people more than others (and more often than others). I am one of those people who constantly needs reassured that I am loved and that there is nothing 'wrong' with me. I need reassured that I am good, or I am sure that I am bad. And I need it more than ever on the days where I am sure the world is out to get me. But as I reach out in whatever desperate ways I can manage, it always ends with negativity. I am an attention-seeker. I am ungrateful. I am annoying. I am many things – and none of them are good. And, already feeling under attack, I become more defensive and more desperate.
Imagine being in a room with a bee. (You're also allergic to bees.) “I need someone to remove this bee,” you shout at the closed door, huddling in the corner. The bee is not attacking you, but there is potential that it might. There is silence. “Please, remove the bee!” You finally receive an answer, but it isn't one you were hoping for. “Stop shouting!” yells a person who does not know you are allergic to bees – and you're stuck in a room with one, either unable to open the door or just too afraid to move out of the corner. The bee is riled up by the noise. You panic. You hit the wall, trying to draw in the attention of someone who can help you. People begin to get angry and annoyed. They hit the wall back. You cry and hit the wall harder. “Stop looking for attention!” someone yells. “There probably is nothing even in there!” another person announces, unable to see what you do. Suddenly, you're beginning to doubt the existence of the bee and you feel guilty for crying out. It buzzes menacingly while people continue to shout. “There are people who have to deal with bees every day! Some people even have to deal with worse! Get over it! You should be grateful it's only one bee!” But that one bee, something that looks so small to everyone else, might just be the death of you. And while the people around you don't think that they are causing any harm (only trying to make you see the 'truth'), they don't understand that they are suddenly part of the potential attack.
Finally, as you're reaching exhaustion and feeling as though no one cares about your safety, someone does come to help you. But no matter what they do, they just can't open the door. It's not their fault. It's not your fault. Even as the people who were previously just hitting the walls and yelling back at you are shouting, “Someone is actually trying to help you! You won't even let them in! Do you even WANT to be helped?!” The door is just stuck.
And what can you do besides accept your fate or become all the more desperate.
The people who didn't understand your situation to begin with either leave the building or continue to yell at you for your fear and desperation to be helped. And, eventually, the people who had shown up to help but found that they couldn't get through the door either join those who are yelling or leave as well. You scream at them not to leave. You don't want to be alone. But they're tired and they want to go home. They don't want to hear you yelling for help when you both know you can't be helped by them. There is nothing they can actively do for you. Sitting outside the door seems useless to them – even though it means the world to you, knowing they're still there. You feel so alone. Even the people who do stay are behind a door, and even though you can talk to them and you appreciate that they are there and you don't want them to leave, you still feel so alone. You can't help it. You just want to be on the outside with them.
People come and tell you to help yourself. You throw your shoe at the bee. It hits. For awhile, you think the bee is dead. But it isn't. You throw your other shoe. The same thing happens. And then you are out of shoes. The bee sits on top of them. And people continue to tell you that you just have to help yourself. You're strong. It's not like anyone else can help you. You're bigger than the bee! If you don't get yourself out of this mess, you clearly want to be in it. But they don't understand that one little sting can kill you. That sometimes you get so close, but the bee can fly and it is faster than you.
They recommend (sometimes condescendingly) that you get professional help. So an exterminator comes. He sprays something to kill the bee under the door. You cough and wheeze and eventually beg him to stop. The spray makes you feel as though the life is being sucked out of you. He tries a different bee spray. This time you feel nauseated and you can't stop crying. He suggests maybe you should talk about the bee. You describe it in detail, but you wonder if he even believes you. He diagnoses you with a bee allergy as though you didn't already know you were allergic. He also tells you that you seem to have a bad habit of biting your nails. You should probably slide some money under the door for another session so you can talk about that too. Oh, and if you need him, he is only available next week for one hour. But you should be fine until then.
You're confined to a corner, feeling helpless. The people who have told you they don't even think there is a bee in the room with you leave you questioning whether or not your perception of the bee is real. Those who yelled at you for seeking attention make you feel guilty for your desperation for help. You want to kill yourself before the bee can, but you're scared and you voice it – and people respond by telling you if you were going to kill yourself, you wouldn't be telling others you want to be dead. You would just die in silence. You think maybe they want you to die in silence. They call back the professional who deems you as a hazard to yourself and takes the rest of your money for another session to talk about the bee. I mean, maybe if you talk about it, the bee will slowly start to disintegrate or something. There are the people who have left you, making you feel unworthy of being helped – annoying, a burden, self-centered, someone with nothing to give to anyone else. And you begin to fear for the day when the people still behind the door finally get up and leave as well. You cling to their presence tightly, accidentally smothering them.
Suddenly the entire world seems to be against you. In reality, outside the door, it isn't. But from where you are confined with that bee, that little speck of mental illness, there is only fear. And it seems like nothing will ever change.
I just want to tell you that if you know someone who struggles with mental illness, it is not always that they just want the attention on themselves. It's not always that they're not thinking about you. It's not always that they're annoying, needy, frustrating people. It is not always that they don't want to help themselves. Or that they want to turn down the help that you're trying to offer. They're stuck inside their heads with a bee and the door won't open. And the best thing you can do is not to get angry, not to yell, not to invalidate them, not to accuse them, not to try to convince them you understand when you're standing in a world outside the door. The best thing you can do if your loved one is struggling is to sit beside the door and let them know that you plan to stay.
You don't need to sit there 24/7. You can get up – take care of your own needs. Please, take care of yourself as well. Eat, sleep, take time for yourself, do things that make you happy – and don't let anyone make you feel guilty for being happy just because they are not. But when you can, sit down outside that door. And on particularly bad days, offer some reassurance that someday, the door will open. And if the person on the other side gets angry, yelling that the door is never going to open, remember that it's fear speaking. People who struggle with mental illness, in a way, are in fear for their lives – especially those who struggle severely.
Be kind. Even if you can't see past our door, to us the terror is very real.
Don't let anyone treat you badly though – ill or not. Don't accept abuse. If someone hurts you, get out.
But for those of you who know people who kind, good people but are just stuck in their heads with a bee...
It would mean the world if you could sit outside the door with a flyswatter, offering comforting words and hoping with us that the door will someday open and we will be free.