Is Mental Illness in the Eye of the Beholder?

Imagine you woke up one morning with a cold, just your everyday, twice a year cold. You’ve had them since you can remember, even as a kid. Imagine the sniffles and aches and sneezes and snot coming out of your nose. Imagine wanting relief so you could go about your day as planned. More than anything, you’d really just love to go back to bed until you felt better. You’d like people to call and sympathize and offer words to cheer you up or bring you chicken soup and silly magazines to read. A “Get Well Soon” card would be nice.

Now imagine a world in which colds are not recognized or accepted as an illness. Even the phrase “physical illness” carries a horrible stigma. You couldn’t go to the drugstore for relief because they wouldn’t carry over-the-counter medicine. You couldn’t tell your boss that you needed the day off because he would think you were lying to get a free day, or maybe you were hungover. You couldn’t say “cold” to anyone, because they would tell you to “get over it,” or that you only made up such a thing to get attention or as an excuse to cancel dinner plans with them, again. Drama queen.

If you did try and explain your cold to anyone, they would look at you with disbelief, then say you must be fine because you look normal. Those things like achiness and fever and snot — really, snot? — would be as foreign to them as the Bubonic Plague or Tuberculosis, things they’d read about in books and history class, suffered by ignorant people who mistook depression and OCD as a physical illness. Thank God for the advances of science.

Then imagine that every time you read about a school shooting or violent crime spree, people with colds were blamed. There would be politicians and mothers and ordinary people on TV saying that physically sick people needed to have their guns taken away and should be locked up if they exhibited “cold-like” behavior. And every article about the killer who shot 30 people in a church would mention that, as a child, he suffered from “the common cold.” You know this is ridiculous because you’ve read the facts citing that only 5 percent of people who suffer from colds are violent (and are more often the target of violent crimes), but it would frighten you, nevertheless. People love to find scapegoats and you’re a prime target.

The worst part of the cold you woke up with is the fear that it might turn into something worse, like a 103 degree fever. If that happened, you’d be sick for an indefinite amount of time and productivity would be almost impossible without medication. But good physicians are hard to find and not all of them like to prescribe antibiotics or accept your insurance. If left untreated, you might have to enter a “cold and flu” facility, a terrifying hospital annex where people sneeze and cough and throw up uncontrollably and complain about things like diabetes and heart disease. Real sickos.

Even worse than that is the fear that your insurance would never cover the cost of such a place, your family will dessert you, you won’t be able to function at work, and you’ll end up homeless on the street, begging for change. You see those people daily, rambling on about their bad leg or herniated disk or the stroke that left them paralyzed on one side.

Your boss would probably fire you and blame it on your bad work ethic, and you’d have little recourse than to accept the severance offered. You’d want to keep your illness hidden because If word got out that you’d stayed at a cold clinic no one would hire you, date you, or trust you with their children. People with colds might snap anytime. Even your most sympathetic friends would tell you they felt bad when they heard you had another cold, then ask, not ten minutes later, why still glum?

One might tell you he sympathizes because he, too, once had the hiccups and it was horrifying. “Have you tried sipping eight glasses of water without breathing? Worked for me.” When you try and explain that your cold is a bit more severe than the hiccups, which you’ve also had, he’ll remind you that “you’re not that special; we all get these things.” When you come back a week later still complaining of your cold, he’ll tell you that, unlike him, you simply don’t want your sickness to go away. “Did you even read those self-help books I gave you?” he’ll say before leaving in disgust.

Imagine that every time someone you knew had a bout of depression or OCD or their bipolar meds weren’t working, everyone, including you, would treat them with kid gloves, urge them to go back to bed, offer words of comfort and comfort food. “Get some rest,” you’d say, even though, personally, you’ve never been afflicted by this thing called mental illness. But you know it exists because people talk about it in casual conversation daily, and it’s an accepted part of modern life and science and you’re a kind person. Ads to combat mental illness are everywhere you look, and the drugstore offers a virtual therapist to help, something all smart people, including you, submit to every year as pre-emptive medicine. The machine talks to you about your condition, asks you questions, then asks if you think you’ll need to see a psychiatrist. If you don’t have one, they can help you look. Your concerned mother puts the yearly appointment on the calendar so you don’t forget to go before the therapists are all booked up. She’s only concerned for your welfare.

Once, when you were little, you said that this thing called mental illness was made up, because you’d never experienced any of the symptoms and you were feeling a little grumpy because you had a headache, and you were ridiculed and sent home from school by your teacher, who personally told you of her hereditary line of paranoid schizophrenics. Your mother, herself struggling with panic attacks, grounded you. “Just wait till it happens to you,” she said, then shrugged off your excuse that you were feeling nauseous when you made the remark. “Do your homework and stop making up these fake ailments,” Mom said. “Or I’ll add another week.”

Your headache had turned into a full-grown migraine at this point, but you didn’t dare bring it up, because you’d already been forced to mow the lawn and rake the leaves. The heat and sunlight were making you think you’d pass out, but if you complained your punishment would have increased. Besides, everyone knows about the kid across the street who went to see an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor and then got bullied on the playground and nicknamed “Debra,” after that horror movie called Terms of Endearment where the actress has this “sick” affliction so badly she actually dies from it. Shame she couldn’t get professional help instead of those cancer specialists. Her mental illness was so severe she transformed it into a terminal, physical illness. But it’s everyone’s favorite Halloween thriller and also serves as a great reminder to see a therapist weekly. Just in case.

After you saw that movie and then found out the kid at school eventually killed himself because his chronic bronchitis, combined with the shame of seeing a Primary Care Physician, and the beatings from his dad, was too much for him to handle, you never told anyone about your sicknesses until way into your adult years. Everything, from mononucleosis to sore throats to chicken pox (god was that hard to cover up) to your foot falling asleep, was kept hidden from even your closest friends. Because the only thing you wanted as much as a cure was to be treated as a normal human being, and normal human beings do not get physically ill.

If you can imagine any of this, then you can imagine a little bit of what people with mental health issues experience on a daily basis, for our entire lives. I’m among the one in five people in the United States who suffer from mental illness, and have suffered from it since the age of 16. I didn’t kill myself, like my father, and I’ve never been institutionalized, like my grandfather. But I’m 55 now, and while the stigma has lessened greatly and the treatments have increased immensely, I still get funny looks when I’m open about my illness, I’m still told I’m making it up, I’m still told to “get over it,” and I’m still told I’m abnormal.

We all are. The stigma is as prevalent as the common cold.

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