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.