I used to think everyone’s skin got red and itchy when the weather turned cold.
I have something called “cold urticaria,” which basically means I’m allergic to the cold. It’s no big deal – just some irritating but harmless hives – but it’s so much a part of my life that I’d always assumed it was universal. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that other people’s experience of feeling cold didn’t include rashes. I stumbled on this information when I mentioned to a friend on especially frigid day that the weather outside was “itchy,” and she had no idea what I meant.
Like my allergy to cold, my anxiety disorder has always been here. I’ve experienced physical pain and gripping terror over relatively small stressors, and I spent most of my life assuming everyone else did, as well. Throughout my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood I tortured myself by plunging into stressful situations again and again, believing that to avoid them would be a sign of laziness and a failure of morality. If everyone faced the same dread over these things then any inability on my part to push through them would mean I was weak, spoiled, bad. Every time I experienced an anxiety attack too overwhelming to manage, I hung myself with all those pejoratives and more.
Learning that my physical and mental responses to stress aren’t the same as everyone else’s was a gift. It’s not that the entire world goes to work each morning with a stomachache and tightness in the throat, and I’m the only one too pathetic or entitled to ignore it and soldier on. When other people say they hate going to work, they mean that they find their jobs frustrating or mundane or even worrisome, but not that it routinely causes them physical pain and a constant low hum of panic.
One of the tentpoles of the mental health community is reminding people with mental illness that they aren’t alone. Other people have been though it and come out the other side, and you can too. Other people are going through it right now and they understand you in a way that your friends and family can’t. You aren’t a freak. Your experience is more common than you think. That message is important. Mental illness can be very isolating, so it helps tremendously to find out your disease is just that: A disease, something that can be identified and treated.
But there’s a downside to normalizing things like anxiety and depression. Make these diseases sound too common and you can lead someone who already struggles with identity and self-esteem to believe that they should be able to power past their illness and function “like everyone else.”
It doesn’t work that way. While many people suffer from mental illnesses that share similar features and symptoms, no two people experience depression or anxiety exactly the same way. Just because the person next to you can hold down a job and raise a family while dealing with mental illness doesn’t make you a failure if you can’t, or if you can’t right now.
When I talk about the horror I feel whenever I start a new project please don’t say, “We all feel that way.” I know you’re trying to help, but you don’t feel the same way I do. If you’re mentally healthy you have no idea how I feel, and even if you have an anxiety disorder of your own you still don’t know what it’s like to live with mine. I’m already beating myself up for all the things I don’t – I can’t – do. I don’t need anyone else piling on.
I don’t know what it’s like to live with your mental illness, either, and I recognize that. Our diseases share some commonalities and we can help each other by acknowledging those and discussing strategies for dealing with them; we just need to remember not to let empathy cross the line into inadvertent shaming.
We’re all in this together, but we’re not all the same. If we’re to help and support each other we can’t lose sight of either of those facts.