This post is part of my series for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018! The series includes articles, poems, and photo essays by many guest authors about mental health and related issues. For more information, click here!
One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone tells me I’m ‘strong.’ Almost regardless of the context, I can feel anger bubbling up inside me; my skin starts to itch because I’m trying so hard not to get mad at them.
Because I’m not strong, and those are empty words.
I’m not strong because I’ve ‘made it this far.’ I’m not brave for telling my story. I’m not strong (or brave) for fighting.
I’m just stubborn and mad. I had mental illness thrown at me when I was barely 18 and there were only two options: fight or give up. It wasn’t strength that made me fight, and actually, I’ve given up a lot too. For four years, I’ve fought tooth and nail when I can, but more often than not, I’ve given up.
Telling my story isn’t brave — it’s just necessary. We need people to talk about mental health because otherwise, no one will know anything about it. I yell about my mental illness, not for some pure, altruistic reason, but because I need help; because the system is broken. It’s not courage, it’s desperation.
Brave and strong are things that people tell me because they’re supposed to. They don’t want to encourage the inner monologue trying to convince me to give up, so they try to encourage me. But they’re empty words — most often said by people who don’t know enough about my struggles to be able to tell if I actually am strong or not.
Strong, adj. \ ˈstrȯŋ \ : able to withstand great force or pressure
I have not withstood the force of my mental illness. I have given in; I have tried to injure myself; I’ve almost ended my life. That, to me, doesn’t sound strong; I am not strong.
Don’t get me wrong, I want to be strong. I want to fight and have the resilience to survive it. I want to come out the other side a better person for it. But I’m just not convinced that I will.
Brave, adj. \ ˈbrāv \ : ready to face and endure danger or pain
Ready? I was never ready. Four years later, I couldn’t even imagine how I would’ve readied myself. How do you ready yourself for something that you don’t even know exists? Something that at every turn changes its plan of attack as soon as you’ve adapted.
What’s that old adage? ‘Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the conquest of it?’ (William Danforth) I can guarantee that I have no absence of fear, but I haven’t even neared conquering it, either.
I think that people have this idea that complimenting me somehow motivates me. Like if they repeat the same things over and over, I’ll eventually believe it. In reality, I just get more and more annoyed, and the little voice in my head gets hoarse screaming ‘But how would they knoooow?!’
Because no one close to me says those things. My immediate family, my friends, they don’t tell me I’m strong; maybe they don’t say it because they know it won’t help, maybe they don’t think it’s true. Either way, I’m glad.
It reminds me of people telling me ‘It’ll all work out,’ or ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s not worth it.’ Because the reality is, my mind’s screaming at me trying to convince me that it’ll never work out and that it’s the world’s biggest deal. So, how do those empty platitudes help?
Sure, maybe people believe that they’re somehow helping me or they get a boost of altruistic pleasure. Maybe they just aren’t sure what else to say. Maybe they really believe it.
No matter the reason, it falls on deaf ears — it will always sound disingenuous to me. I don’t think that it’s possible to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t make me cringe.
I have heard all sorts of ‘encouraging,’ empty platitudes from people ignorant of my recovery for years. Reading too much into what I show them and believing that it represents what’s going on inside. Believing that my ability to share my story or speak up for myself somehow means that I’m doing well. (It doesn’t, by the way.) It just means that I’m loud and obnoxious.
When I made my complaint at the hospital, the nurse that I lodged my complaint with told me that my ability to come in and discuss the issue “spoke a lot” to where I was in recovery. I struggled not to roll my eyes at her. Because seriously? She’d met me ten minutes prior, knew nothing about me, and barely even listened to what I was saying. I made my complaint and came in to see her because I was mad, and mad overpowered any self-doubt or hesitation that my illness caused.
I’ve had people tell me I’m eloquent, which is a wonderful compliment, but when it’s followed up with some allusion to how I ‘must be doing well,’ it loses all meaning. Just because I can say words good and put my thoughts together reasonably effectively, it doesn’t mean that anything in my head makes sense.
Try talking to me when I’m in a panic, or when I’m suddenly so depressed that I can barely talk. It’s all mush up there.
Maybe all of this is to say that you should say what you mean and mean what you say. Don’t read into my state of mind unless I actually let you into my mind. And don’t bother with the things that you’re ‘supposed’ to say — obligation is not a good reason to say anything. If you’re not sure what to say, just say that.
Because I’m not sure what to say either.