This is a post about anger and it’s a post about invalidation, but mostly, it’s about mental illness. Let’s just get that out of the way, folks. Let’s talk about the huge elephant that mysteriously walks in whenever this topic is broached in real-life conversation. Mental illness?! What does that mean?!
In short, it means a huge variety of ailments and symptoms and diseases that I could not adequately make a list (there is one, it’s called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly referred to as the DSM, and is used by psychiatrists). There are a million and one different mental disorders a person might have. Having said that, the most common (often referred to as the “common colds” of mental illness) are anxiety disorders and mood disorders. And within those two, you’ll find hugely different things as well. Bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder are both mood disorders, but they are radically different illnesses. Panic disorder and social anxiety disorder are both anxiety disorders, but they are also radically different in many key ways.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because most people don’t know what mental illness actually means, what it is, how it functions, and most importantly, how to deal with it. They also don’t realize how common it is. Depression and anxiety are two ridiculously common categories of mental disorders. I have known many people, spoken to many people, who deal with these problems on a daily basis. Neurotypical people (people without mental illnesses, disabilities, etc) do not understand the experiences of those with mental illness, and yet, they still feel that they can tell us how to handle them. If you have a mental disorder like me, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Everybody who has ever been diagnosed with a disorder and has had to tell a family member, a friend, or more especially an employer, knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Not even psychologists and psychiatrists pretend to know how we should deal with our mental illness—and they know far more than the average person does about it. They know much more about the brain chemistry and the misfiring of neurons and the chemical imbalances that actually cause mental illnesses. They’ve known tons of people who deal with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and many other disorders on a daily basis. They have plenty of experience in helping people cope. And yet, not even professionals—on the whole, anyway–feel that there is one quick fix or one easy solution to dealing with a mental health problem. So why does the average neurotypical person feel the need to explain away our problems and tell us what’s good for us?
This happened the other day, thankfully not to me, but to someone I know. This person had to tell their boss that they were suffering from an anxiety disorder and needed some time off work. The time off was begrudgingly granted, I am told, and when this person arrived back at work, their boss noticed they were taking anti-anxiety medication because they had to bring the pills to the workplace. Their boss said, “You know what I told you before! You don’t need pills—just be happy.”
Something I have run into, overwhelmingly, is the desire to explain away mental illness as if it’s this problem that has an obvious solution you just haven’t thought of. This time it didn’t happen to me, but it has before—many, many times, and it’s been done to me by people close to me. By my parents, by my family members, by my partner, by friends, even by counselors. I’ve even heard that phrase before: “just be happy.” A word to the wise: if I knew how to just get happy, I would have done it years ago. Nobody enjoys being ill. Nobody enjoys their disordered thought patterns. Nobody enjoys the feeling of spiraling uncontrollably. Nobody enjoys relapsing. Nobody. I have a mood disorder. What would I give not to have it? Pretty much everything. It sucks. It’s a waste of time and energy and it is an incredible source of pain and grief and inconvenience. There is nothing I can do about that. That’s just how the illness works. I can do things that help curb my disorder, or help prevent episodes from occurring, but there is nothing I can do to change the nature of it. It is what it is, people, and it is exhausting.
What you don’t realize is that the moment you tell a person with a disorder that they should just get happy, that they should just forget how they feel, you are invalidating them and undermining their illness. You are turning away a person who is sick and who is suffering. And, let me be frank: if you are the sort person who, when approached by someone who asks you for help with their suffering, turns them away and dismisses them—you, my friend, are an asshole of the highest order and I have no time or patience for you. But if you are someone who wants to help but just doesn’t know how? That can be fixed, actually pretty easily. There are only three things you have to do, and they are incredibly simple and not at all labour intensive.
Number one: you have to stop thinking that you know everything. You have to stop trying to fix it and giving useless advice. Shut up and LISTEN to what the person is saying. Listen to how they feel and how they’re coping and just, whatever they feel like telling you. Don’t press them for more information if they do not want to give it, because you are not entitled to know. You are also not entitled to tell a person with a disorder how to deal with their disorder. You have no idea what living with that illness is like, and you don’t have to pretend to understand. You just have to shut up and listen, stop trying to interject your opinion or your advice, and have an ounce of compassion. And just because you don’t understand the disorder, doesn’t mean you cannot be sympathetic to what this person is going through. A little bit of compassion goes a long way towards validating that person and making them feel supported, which (coincidentally!) has a lot to do with how well they will recover. Support systems are extremely important for those dealing with mental disorders. Do not underestimate how far a few minutes of compassion can go.
Number two: ask them what they actually need or want. Don’t assume that you know. Don’t think that they should want this or that. They often will NOT want your advice, because generally—again, unless you have personal experience or you are a doctor—you have no valuable advice to give that they haven’t heard before. Don’t assume that your advice is helpful or useful in any way. If they ask you for your opinion, give it. If they ask you for your advice, that’s your opportunity. Otherwise, shut up. Again, shut up. If you don’t know what this person needs (and in most cases, you won’t), then ASK THEM. If they tell you they don’t need anything right now and just need some alone time, respect that. People with disorders do not need to be monitored and checked on like children. If they are a danger to themselves, and you have a strong reason to believe this, that’s another issue. But on a day-to-day basis, they are not dangerous to themselves or others. Treat them like you did before, because they are the SAME PERSON. It’s the same as if you found out they had cancer. You have no idea what it’s like to have cancer, or how it works, or what kind of emotional toll it will have on them. Ergo, you have zero valuable input in that situation. But cancer has not altered their personality in any way. Same with a mental disorder–they are fundamentally the same person you have known all along, and a diagnosis on a piece of paper or a bottle of pills does not change this. Treat them as normally as possible while being sensitive to their needs, because many people with mental illnesses are very used to being treated like freaks or oddities after they come out to people.
Number three: Stop judging. Nobody needs your bullshit judgments of how this disorder is just an excuse for “bad behaviour” and getting a “free ride.” No. Stop. Mental illness is real. It is documented, there is tons of evidence for its existence, and it is not this person’s job to educate you, explain themselves to you, or justify their needs to you. Nor is it their fault if you are too lazy or too judgmental to do the research. Mental illness is not a sign of personal weakness, and it can be very serious, even life-threatening in some cases. Your judgment worsens this and increases the potential for suicide. And your judgments of suicide and people who commit suicide are also extremely unwelcome. The fact that you think it matters so much speaks to your sense of entitlement and your high-horse sense of morality. We don’t need your moralizing and we don’t need your frankly stupid assessment of our situations. What you think of this person’s disorder is supremely unimportant, I can’t emphasize to you just how much nobody gives a crap about what you think in this situation—especially if you don’t know the person all that well, especially if you’re someone who is very much on the sidelines, like an employer or a co-worker. If you don’t KNOW the person, your opinion is even less welcome and even less warranted. When someone tells you that your advice is bad, shut up. When someone tells you that what you’re saying is counter-productive, shut up. When someone tells you that you are invalidating them, shut up. Just. Shut. Up. Close your mouth and stop talking. Come back to the situation when you have cooled off and ASK THEM WHAT THEY NEED. Stop judging. Right now. Or you will get nowhere quickly and this person has every reason to never speak to you again. (Maybe I should break this list down to just “shut up.”)
Number three and a half: Stop giving your opinion on psychiatric medications, because chances are, you are clueless as to how they work and what they do. Common misconceptions are that they “turn you into a zombie,” or “make you numb” or “make you happy.” They don’t do any of those things, for your information, and your guilt-tripping over their medications is NOT helpful. This includes telling them that their medications won’t “solve everything” (do these people actually even exist? I’ve never heard of ANYONE who really thought this), as if that weren’t obvious enough, and it also includes your moral or religious or spiritual objections to medications. It is none of your business, and even if it was, who cares about you and what you think in this situation? This is not YOU. YOU are not dealing with anything. YOU don’t have to take them. And, let’s parse this for a moment: if you had some kind of illness that caused you extreme pain, and the doctor told you that this medicine could help you but there might be risks associated with it and it might not work, would you take it? PROBABLY. So stop. Stop it with this ridiculous sense of entitlement that people should care about what you think.
People often comment on my passion on a lot of things. Sometimes, they comment on my anger. Anger is something that persons of every marginalized group deal with. People with mental illnesses are no exception. We are a marginalized group, mostly because society just doesn’t care enough to “get” us and listen to us. People recycle their old judgments and assumptions, over and over. And so, yeah, I’m angry. I’m pissed off. I’m angry that people continually invalidate me and people like me, just because they can. I’m angry that people feel entitled to tell me what they think about my illness and how it relates to my life choices. I’m angry that people see me as an illness, and I’m angry that people think my illness is a sign of my own personal weakness. I’m angry because I can tell you the very opposite: my illness and the fact that I am still here is a huge testament to my strength. I have dealt with something that many people never do. I have dealt with a crippling mood disorder and I am still here, despite the fact that I have been suicidal on many, many occasions. Despite the fact that I have suffered so much. Despite the fact that medications failed me. Despite the fact that for most of my life, I have had long periods of intense pain and sadness and powerlessness.
My anger was invalidated for most of my life. I was often made to feel guilty because I was angry. And, as a child and as a teenager, I was angry about a lot of things. I was angry because I was ill, and people kept telling me that it was just a phase, or even worse, trying to punish me into being “normal.” I was angry because I didn’t know why I was suffering so much, seemingly for no reason. I was angry because of the various injustices in my life, but most of all, I was angry because I wasn’t allowed to be angry. People in my life were so quick to dismiss and explain away my anger, explain to my why I shouldn’t be angry.
As a result, I saw anger as a weakness. But anger—while it can be toxic—can also be an incredibly useful emotion. Anger is normal. Anger is healthy. Anger is a natural response to the unfairness and injustice that is dealt to us. Anger is a response to being hurt. And righteous anger, justified anger, is an incredibly useful tool. When you take away that person’s right to be angry, when you invalidate their anger, you are taking away their power and making them feel incredibly powerless and hopeless. That is what was done to me, and that is how I felt: extremely powerless. And when you have a mental illness and you feel distressed and lost and alone and hopeless, powerlessness adds another layer to your intense pain. I know it did for me. The pain that I felt because I felt that I could not be angry was immense, and that pain only intensified with the years that I had to keep it inside of me.
I’m telling you this because invalidation is quite possibly the worst thing you can do to someone dealing with a mental illness. One of the other terrible things you can do is invalidate their anger at the world and at the society they live in. We tend to characterize people who are angry with the world as bitter people. But this is not always the case. I am angry with the society that invalidates me and tells me to “just be happy.” I’m saying to you that my anger is 100% justified, and you will not take my power away from me. And the anger of all people with mental illness is 100% justified. Don’t invalidate that anger by saying things like, “well, not everybody thinks that,” “well, some people care,” or “well, you just have to ignore them.” This is a problem that cannot be ignored.
Put it this way: how would you feel if I told you that everything you’ve ever gone through was trivial and stupid, and you should just get over the fact that your mom died? You’d be angry, and rightfully so! I’d be a total jerk and you would be absolutely justified in telling me so. So why is it so hard to see the parallel there? Why is it so hard to extend this validation? When you deny people their anger, you deny them their power and with that, you deny them their personhood.
Finally, I’m going to direct this at you, neurotypical person who may be reading this. You have no idea of what my illness is like, and therefore you have absolutely no way of knowing how to deal with it or how to treat it. You have no knowledge of how to help me, and you certainly don’t have the expertise to comment on whether I should be taking medications for my disorder or not. You do not have the right to tell me I’m dealing with my illness–which again, you do NOT have–in the wrong way. There is no right way to deal with a mental illness. What will work for one person will not work for somebody else. Mental illness is unique in every single case, and every person deals with it in their own way. Back off.
To the persons with mental illness who may be reading this: there is zero shame in asking for help. Your anger at those who invalidate you is justified; own it and use it. Use whatever tools you have at your disposal. Not all coping mechanisms are healthy, but if it’s a matter of life and death, USE THEM. Get a doctor who understands you. Get a therapist who understands you and who you feel comfortable with. Be an advocate for your own health. This is your future, not theirs. This is your life, not theirs. Don’t listen those who would take your power away. You are powerful, and you are not crazy. The thing most against us is ignorance, both willful and unintentional. Don’t waste your time on people who pretend you are some kind of alien species. Don’t waste your time on people who won’t help you. Take heart.
Take comfort in those who understand you, and even if no one does, take comfort that there are people like you—people like me—everywhere. We are here. We are you, and we are me, and we are others like us. The more desperate people are to silence us, the more evidence is that we are at the edge of an age where maybe, just maybe, there is hope for us.
Hope: something we haven’t had for a very, very long time.