A friend gave me a pin recently that reads “Fighting Invisible Battles.” She had ordered it for me when I was struggling and taking a 3-week medical leave from work. My denim jacket will have one more pin to advocate for mental health, along with my green awareness pin and my volunteer pin from Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences. This pin, however, does more than advocate for people with a mental illness. It speaks to the difficulties of having an illness that no one can see.
When I took that medical leave two people at the organization were privy to what was going on. Everyone else must have wondered and speculated as to why someone who was seemingly fine and interacting normally with coworkers needed a leave. What they didn’t see, what they couldn’t see, was the panic, the mind numbing anxiety, the inability to rationalize the overwhelming emotions coming in. I feared that people would see photos of sunbathing and campfires on my social media and think my doctor’s note was a sham.
But I make no apologies for how I recover, how I self-care. It is an invisible battle, every day. My brain’s chemistry does not show itself on my skin, in my breathing or as a broken bone. And if it can’t be seen, it mustn’t be real. I tell people I didn’t go to graduate school after finishing my B.A. because I was sick. I tell people I didn’t start my career before my 30s because of health problems. This is all true but avoiding the fact that these concerns were psychiatric avoids judgment, doubt and stigma. I once worked with a woman who said of her ex-husband: “He spent two weeks in the psych ward. He’s a total psycho.” Spending two weeks in the CCU to recover from brain surgery would never qualify you as such.
So many people are fighting invisible battles. Invisible illnesses and disabilities of any kind often mean that the people living with them are offered less support than those living with more prominent and visible conditions. When it comes to mental illness, it can mean being judged based on what is visible and observable as opposed to being understood for the symptoms and pain we live with.
When my symptoms were at their worst, when I was undiagnosed and untreated, I was the life of the party. I was incredibly adept at hiding the pain and putting on a façade. People were drawn to me, people wanted to know me, wanted to spend time with me. When I was diagnosed and I started sharing that information with people, those who didn’t know me as well were often shocked. No one would have expected a suicide attempt from the girl who always had a smile on her face, who never turned down an adventure, who was bright, creative and talented.
Now that I have lived with my diagnosis and received treatment for almost 10 years, I am much more stable, I manage my symptoms and I use my experiences to educate others. The happy, outgoing girl is most often not a façade but instead who I truly am. Nonetheless, living with mental illness is always difficult. Mental illness cannot be cured. We can heal and we can recover, we can learn to manage, but it never goes away. Every day has its challenges and some days are harder than others. This can often be made even harder by the fact that mental illnesses are invisible. Without knowing that I struggle with mental health issues, some of my reactions and behaviours can sometimes be hard to understand. The sudden onset of a panic attack, for example, can be hard to comprehend when someone isn’t aware of what I deal with.
It is possible to live with a mental illness and be functional. It is possible to smile, to socialize and to show up for work and be painfully clinically depressed. It is possible to make it through a daily routine and be productive while struggling with OCD. There are most likely people in your life living with mental illness, they just don’t advertise it. Support those fighting invisible battles. Believe them when they tell you it’s hard, when they tell you they struggle. Let people open up to you and tell you their story. Battles are more easily won with the help of others.