How’s that for a conversation stopper? The only way to top that is to announce that you have worms. People often get very nervous about mental illness. They think it means that a person is “crazy.”
I’ve struggled with this expression for years, tried to avoid it, tried to use other, less onerous phrases. My favorite has been to say I’ve got a psychological illness. Sounds ever so much better, but it essentially means the same thing.
Years ago a mental health worker sat me down and carefully explained to me that I wasn’t mentally ill, I was emotionally ill. I suppose his intent was to make me feel better about being locked up in a psychiatric hospital, and in fact it did. I knew that my main problem was a disorder of my emotions – severe depression being the most prominent and troublesome symptom. It was severe enough that I was suicidal and needed to be hospitalized.
To many people – myself included at one time – mental illness suggests “insanity” or psychosis, complete inability to discern reality from fantasy or imagination. This isn’t true. Many mentally ill people – most of us – don’t have much trouble telling reality from imagination. Most of us aren’t psychotic. Many of us are practical, level-headed people.
What makes my affliction mental illness, rather than just emotional illness, is that the continued powerful mood colors my thinking. When I am feeling depressed, when there is an overwhelming mood of despair and sadness that endures for weeks or months, my thinking is affected. I begin to believe that the situation is hopeless; I make decisions based on faulty assumptions brought about by negative emotions. While I am not confusing reality with fantasy, I am nevertheless getting an inaccurate view of reality. It’s distorted by the lens of depression. I’m looking at the world through shit-colored glasses.