Stupid Things People Say about Mental Illness

My father has never been big on expressing emotion, particularly uncomfortable emotion. He’s also the kind of guy who, when playing cards, “knows what’s in everybody’s hand.”

His reaction to the news of my bulimia, then, was really no surprise.

I’d lost a lot of weight by crash dieting the summer before my senior year of high school, and when I went back to school and found that I could no longer stick to my starvation schedule, I tried to keep the weight from piling back on by being a lot less careful about when and where I threw up. My mother figured out what I was doing and told me she was taking me to a doctor. Later that day, while exercising in the home gym in our basement, my father made the only acknowledgment he ever made about my eating disorder when he said, “You’ve got to learn some balance.”

Umm, really, Dad? You think?

Today, with 11 years of Twelve Step recovery under my belt, I know that he was trying to be helpful. At the time, though, it was demoralizing, to say the least. I knew I needed more balance. Intellectually, I knew exactly what I needed to do to maintain a healthy weight. But that didn’t mean I could do it.

The way I thought and acted and felt around food was different from my father. We could order the exact same meal at a restaurant and he’d push his plate away before he was done saying, “I’m stuffed like a dirty pig.” I, meanwhile, would stare at him uncomprehendingly. How could he be 6’ tall and stuffed when I could eat three more plates? I had no mechanism that signaled fullness. I ate like I was bottomless pit.

His assumption, though, that I was just like him and could learn to “push myself away from the table” if I just tried harder, is where a lot of the stigma that’s associated with all types of mental illness comes from. It’s a failure of the imagination, really. An inability to imagine that someone else’s brain patterns could really be all that different from your own.

*****

The government released some new research last week on the prevalence of mental illness among U.S. adults in 2009. It found that nearly 45 million Americans suffered from some form of mental illness last year, with many contending with depression due to unemployment.

Here’s a comment on an MSNBC news article that illustrates my point about a failure of the imagination:

I say BS. Mental illness, my ass. Bunch of whining people who want a diagnosis as a reason for their unhappiness. Depressed? Exercise, play with your dog, play with your kids. Anxiety? Solve your problems, instead of wallowing in them. Is there mental illness? Sure. Is it one in 5? Only if you count a bunch of whining, overweight, lazy people.

Playing with her dog helps this woman fend off feelings of unhappiness. She can’t imagine why that same tactic wouldn’t work for everybody else.

*****

In between my husband’s hospitalizations for psychosis, my parents flew down to visit us for a few days. My dad being my dad, he felt the need to offer John some advice: “Exercise helps you keep a healthy mental balance. You’ve got to get away from work for a few minutes and relieve that stress.”

It’s actually good advice for how to stay on an even mental keel under normal circumstances, but at the time, it kind of missed the point. My father completely shied away from the fact that John would have to take medication and see a psychiatrist. He was playing into John’s delusion that the hospitalization had all been a big misunderstanding, and if only the nurses had hooked him up to an IV nutrient bag and let him sleep instead of giving him antipsychotic drugs, everything would have been fine.

My father put John’s illness into terms he could understand: This happened because my son-in-law didn’t take enough breaks from his work. He had a hard time fathoming that what had happened could have anything to do with a chemical imbalance in John’s brain.

John did eventually come to the understanding that he has a disease. And as long as he understands his illness and what he needs to do to keep it at bay, other people don’t have to get it.

The trouble comes when people are suffering from an illness they don’t want, or don’t understand, and the feedback they’re getting from everyone around them is, “Try harder to be like me. Exercise. Play with your dog. If you can’t beat it my way, then you’re just a lazy, whining, worthless person.”

This kind of feedback makes it much more difficult to admit the extent of your problem and reach out for help.

*****

One thing I learned when I joined my Twelve Step program was that my eating disorder wasn’t a moral failing. I wasn’t weak-willed, bad, or irresponsible because I couldn’t control how I ate. I had an illness, and things that worked for “normal eaters” didn’t work for me.

And that’s okay. Today, I have the tools I need to cope with my illness. I have the tools I need to live a healthy life.

But I didn’t get here because I willed myself to be like other people. I had to acknowledge my illness, acknowledge my disease, and make accommodations for it. I had to accept that, for me, “pushing myself away from the table” wasn’t the answer, exercise wasn’t the answer, and playing with my dog wasn’t the answer.

Which didn’t make me a lazy, whining person. It made me a sick person who had finally found a way to get well.

Don’t want to say something stupid to someone struggling with mental illness? Take a look at this list of supportive things to say.

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15 Responses to Stupid Things People Say about Mental Illness

  1. Adult child of an alcoholic, caregiver to my mother who suffered from mental illness and a daughter recovering from an eating disorder; I too have face many individuals who have said things which were hurtful and wrong.
    I feel there are two main reasons for this:
    1. Mental Illnes is misunderstood. There needs to be more education and awareness. As the saying goes, “we’ve come along way baby” from 27 years ago when my Mom was first diagnosed…But we still have a long way to go.
    2. People who are not familiar with mental illness, for the most part are uncomfortable around it. They just don’t know what to say…so many times in an attempt to encourage or help, things are said that end up getting the opposite reaction than what they had intended.
    I am happy that you have learned the tools and use them in order live a healthy life.
    Keep speaking out about Mental illness….those hurting in your voice of truth.
    You go girl!!
    ~b

    • Thank you, Bridgit, you’re so right about the need for more education and awareness. I remember learning about eating disorders in junior high health class, but I don’t think we ever addressed serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. How cool would it be if education about the signs and symptoms of those disorders was included in freshman orientation at college? So many kids are first affected by these diseases when they go away to school.

      Interestingly, I find that the more educated and aware I am, the less it matters to me what other people say. (Although that comment on the MSNBC article is pretty irritating. I hope nobody in that woman’s family ever faces a mental health crisis, because her attitude would be a serious impediment toward finding help.)

      Hope your daughter is doing well today!

  2. It’s probably true that for certain mental conditions, breaking a behavior pattern by doing something physical *might* help, just like, if someone has diabetes, a change of diet and losing weight might be helpful. (Although plenty of diabetics are thin and are rigorous about foods and they need meds anyway.)

    BUT, when something goes amiss in your brain, whether it’s faulty wiring or a gland stuck on or underproducing, all the positive thinking and playing with dogs in the world won’t “cure” you, any more than going for a nice jog will “cure” your shinsplints.

    I think the more people speak out about mental illness (like this blog), the more others will recognize that they have an actual, physical/chemical cause, and need medication AND therapy AND support from the community.

  3. Chris Wells says:

    Another great post. Where do you live? Because I would love to meet up with you someday. Also, your pic with the STFU on the finger? Genius. :) Love it.

    So, I do understand this post very well. My parents were very young when they had me (dad had just turned 16 and mom 18), so most of the comments that killed me came from my grandparents.

    My paternal grandmother and I were very close. Every time I was hospitalized I’d call her. A couple times per day usually. And she didn’t really get it. If I sounded okay on the phone (she was in CT, I was in NV), why did I need to be there? Why would I want to kill myself? What was mania? It never made sense, no matter what my mood state or episode. Because I could hold it together to talk to Grammie. You know?

    She truly didn’t understand. But it took me so many years to see it. It was when I was in grad school for social work, and she didn’t quite understand what an MSW was. I was like, what?? You don’t get this? Wow. And then she died and never got the chance to ever truly get it. Or see my son. (Moving away from that sadness….).

    To be fair, no one in my family ever really got it. Except my mom. And she was suicidal often. So that didn’t help. A person with untreated bipolar disorder isn’t super helpful to the person with bipolar disorder who IS trying to be well.

    This entry touched me. I can imagine your dad telling you about the need for balance. Just like my own mom telling me that things in moderation are okay. And I went to my room and laughed. Was crack okay in moderation?

    This is all such mind-blowing stuff. I’m grateful today to have people like yourself to share it with.

    • Holy cow, Chris — I’m going to e-mail you offline because I’d love to get together with you, too. I remember when I first joined my Twelve Step program and my dad, my best friend, and the counselors at the health center at college were all telling me it was too strict, I’d become anorexic, I’d never be able to do the program and “live in the real world.” (Can you guess which was my dad’s line?)

      I wanted—so badly—to make them understand what my life was like without it: shades drawn, unshowered, purging until I saw blood, calling myself a disgusting, bloated pig… and then going out and binging again.

      Because if they understood that, then they’d understand why I needed the Twelve Steps, and why I couldn’t get better on my own.

      I remember talking to my sponsor about it—about wanting them to get it—and she told me that no one else has to understand. In fact, she said, the people who love me don’t want to understand how much I suffered. It’s too painful for them. But she also told me that as long as I understand why I need the program, and as long as I persevere, eventually they’ll at least understand that what I’m doing helps me.

      And she was right! My dad loves my program today, although he still doesn’t really know its name or understand the Twelve Steps or even know what membership entails. He just knows that I’m happy, I’m healthy, and I can totally live in the real world.

      I’m sorry your grandma passed away before she got to meet your son, but I’m glad she got to see you happier, healthier, and doing well at grad school—even if she couldn’t wrap her head around what you were studying. ;)

  4. Elizabeth says:

    This is one of the best posts I have ever read about these issues.

    Just the other night, I finally … after many many years told my Mom and sister that it wasn’t helpful or productive for them to keep telling me that the reason that I don’t have a boyfriend or husband or even date for that matter is because I’m overweight.

    I have struggled with food addiction and weight issues for years and they always say that the reason I don’t get asked on dates is because of my weight. And when I told them that it wasn’t productive for them to keep saying that, they lashed out at me and really went to town saying that stuff over and over. For instance my sister said one of her famous lines (that I’v heard… oh a gazillion times before), she said: “Why don’t you just lose 50 pounds?!”

    Yea. Why don’t I? What a quick and easy solution. Sigh.

    Anyway, having OCD and anxiety, I’ve also heard a lot of rubbish from people in my family thru the years like: “why don’t you just stop worrying?!” Um…okay.

    Anyway, you get the picture. I could write many many more examples from my own life but suffice it to say, your post is RIGHT ON!

    Elizabeth-

    • Oh, Elizabeth, I’m so sorry that your family is so clueless! It was really brave of you to speak up for yourself, and I’m sorry they weren’t able to hear or appreciate what you had to say. So frustrating!

      My dad doesn’t make stupid remarks about my food troubles anymore because I’ve found a solution that works for me, but he makes clueless comments about other things sometimes, and I just laugh them off. I know it’s a losing battle to try to convince him to see things my way, so I just accept that he doesn’t get it and let it go. That might be the approach you have to take with your mom and sister. If they’re going to attack you every time you disagree with them, it might not be worth the headache.

      Stay strong in what you know is true for you, and don’t let them make you feel bad for not being able to simply stop worrying or drop those 50 pounds at the drop of a hat.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for your words of encouragement, Heather… you sound just like my therapist! He said it was awesome that I spoke up for myself and he also said to ignore people who tell me to “stop worrying.”

    Elizabeth-

    • Hey Elizabeth, I also wanted to add that plenty of women with a little extra weight end up in happy, healthy, and supportive relationships. No matter what my size, men always find me more attractive when I feel good about myself. It’s really not about the weight!

  6. Elizabeth says:

    That’s what I have slowly come to believe myself and it helped to hear my male therapist say the same thing to me the other day. Again, thanks for the encouraging words :-)

  7. Hi Heather, I read your post and you are an eloquent writer. But I am afraid I am one of those clueless types like your dad and that lady who made the comment.

    You see, I too, was once told that I had a brain disease. I had incurable, hereditary, chemical imbalance in my brain. I was not supposed to feel guilty about my ‘disease’. It was not something I could control. It was not a character flaw…blah blah blah.

    I knew there was something seriously wrong with me and in my youth and trusting naiveté I submitted myself to psychiatric care for treatment. Only treatment turned out to be once-a-week therapy sessions, and I didn’t really feel like talking about myself back then, so that didn’t help. The other thing they gave me, well, forced me, under constant threat of assault and battery, to take, was psychiatric meds. This was done to me in the name of this grand theory that all I had to do to be well and ‘recover’ was, admit to myself I had a disease I was powerless over and stay with ‘treatment’, which did absolutely, positively, nothing for me in any meaningful or beneficial way.

    So I became one of those treatment resistant blips. One of those irresponsible, sad, sick people who couldn’t admit to themselves that they needed this ‘treatment’. I became the worst of bipolar patients, the noncompliant, protesting patient, too concerned about my subjective world than saving other people from myself to stay in proper treatment. I became one of those rogue patients who walked through life unmedicated. My illness—’unmanaged’—to use psychiatry’s parlance.

    Now I am set up for the Big Fall. My arrogance that would be my undoing. That would force me at the lowest point in my life to humble myself and put myself back in treatment—to finally wake up, face my failings, ask for help, to be all contrite and to try to get better. Except that didn’t happen.

    Instead I became inspired by yoga and martial arts masters. Individuals who have control over their mind and body in ways most Westerners can only imagine. People who can control their metabolic and heart rate at will. People who can sense the inner workings of their own Beings, their body and mind to exert control over themselves. Even just the knowledge that you could do those things was enough to inspire me to try.

    Rather than carry on with my life, popping pills and trying to fight stigma and being out there, educating people about the realities of mental illness and how no one has any power over it, I ejected. I bailed out of the rat race in order to study mind-body training and meditation. And lo and behold, after some number of years of this, my mental illness slowly started to go away. The more I learned how my mind worked, the easier it became to make changes to my thinking and feeling. Gradually, bit by bit, I got better. I changed my lifestyle patterns, I did physical as well as mental exercise. I monitored my stress. I took care of myself, of my person and soul. After awhile of this, I healed myself.

    Now it is has been over fifteen years since I last tried to hurt myself. In all that time I have had zero contact with mental health services. By using and focusing my mind in certain specific ways, I changed my mind and banished the mental problems that my mind used to have.

    I am so completely serious about this, that I am willing to be subjected to brain scans to compare my PET scan to the brains of people with mental illness—to the brains of Buddhist and Tibetan monks. I can pratically guarantee that my brain will show none of the neurocognitive deficits seen in PET scans of people with bipolar or schizophrenia or depression and a considerable amount of neuroplastic growth in my prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that rules over thought and emotion traffic.

    I totally understand where that clueless lady and your clueless dad are coming from. I followed their suggestions. I found balance and I solved my problems instead of wallowing in them. I cured my own unhappiness and my own self-loathing rather than perpetually search for someone or something to do it for me. That’s why I can’t get on the anti-stigma train. Once I knew how my own mind caused me to suffer, what was stigmatizing, was every day that I didn’t spend on trying to permanently change my mental programming, when I knew I had the tools to do it. Take care and have a great holiday season.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jane. You’re also a very good writer.

      I absolutely believe that everyone has his or her own path to wellness, and I’m glad you’ve found a way of life that works for you. I found relief from my eating disorder by finding balance through a Twelve Step program rather than psychiatry, but I recognize that what works for one person doesn’t always work for another.

      And that, really, is the crux of my “cluelessness” argument. It’s not that my dad and that woman advised against medication or psychiatry. It’s that they assumed that what works for them—stop wallowing, find some balance, etc., etc.—will work for everybody else, too. Medications and therapy help a lot of people, and they’re especially important when someone is facing suicidal depression or psychosis.

      I used to think that if I couldn’t solve my own problems, I was weak. Therapy was a crutch, medication was a crutch, the Twelve Steps were a crutch. What I’ve discovered is that, more often than not, admitting weakness is actually a sign of strength, because it’s only by owning up to our problems that we’re able to find a viable solution.

      My journey to recovery was to surrender to the fact that I can’t control my eating disorder on my own. Your journey was to accept that conventional/Western treatments weren’t working and to seek another path. Again, I’m very glad that you found a solution that works for you.

      Today, I don’t feel one ounce of unhappiness, self-loathing, or guilt regarding the fact that I’m a recovering food addict, and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful, too, that I never had to make my husband feel guilty for the fact that he experienced a psychotic episode (which was 100% not his fault) and needed medication to recover from it.

      Like you, like thousands of other people who’ve struggled with mental illness, my husband and I both found our own ways to cope with our mental health problems. Whether that includes medication, therapy, the Twelve Steps, meditation, yoga, or what have you, I’m grateful that people have many different treatment options.

      Making someone feel guilty because one particular method of treatment doesn’t work is counterproductive. When we accept that there are many different paths to wellness, it becomes much easier for those who are suffering to keep searching for the path that will work for them.

  8. jadecreighton says:

    It’s as if you know my father, brilliant blog!

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