The Danger of Trying to “Normalize” Mental Illness

Gillian Sisley

You may believe you’re helping — but you’re not.

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“No, no honey. You’re not suffering from mental illness. We’re all anxious sometimes. That happens to everyone, it’s normal — we all sometimes struggle with trying to get out of bed, some days.”

This was my mother’s response the first time I tried to open up to her about my mental health struggles.

She called my anxiety “normal” — as if the three other people in the room experience anxiety mixed with everyday life in the same way I do.

But they simply don’t.

Because no one else in that room had been aggressively sexually assaulted.
No one in that room suffered from severe trauma left behind after a horrible violation of damaging proportions.
No one else in that room would have episodes of paranoia where they would find themselves closing all of the curtains in the house, and checking all of the locks on the doors and the windows, to ensure their attacker couldn’t break in and violate them again.

In that room, those were realities which existed solely, and sadly, with me, and me alone.

Opening the dialogue about mental illness is not the same as trying to normalize it.

Bless my mother — she really was trying to be helpful.

She is also the epitome of not being able to see in your own child what you see every single day on the hospital’s 7th floor — the psych ward.

To be fair, my mother works in a managing administrative role in that department, not as a healthcare provider. She also only sees the most severe of cases — the ones which have people admitted because they are a harm to themselves or others.

Which is, thankfully, not me.

Sure my general anxiety and the side-effects of my trauma can sometimes get in the way of my day-to-day life, but I’m lucky to have a mild-enough case which leaves me as the one coming out on top more often than the one being beaten down.

But that’s not to say that it isn’t a daily struggle… because it is. I have to be ever vigilant, and I have to fight for control of my own life on a daily basis.

To tack that down to just being “stress” or an “anxiety” that everyone goes through is dangerous.

To make a statement like that trivializes and belittles the courageous battle a person is fighting and the struggles they are overcoming each and every day.

Mental health struggles are hard to understand unless you’re living with them.

I’m not the only person in the world who struggles with anxiety.

I’m actually one of the luckier cases, as mine is trauma-based and not genetically-wired into my brain. It may just go away someday, with enough therapy and self-reflection. Maybe.

There are a lot of people who don’t have the luxury to say that.

But regardless, we are all people. And those struggling with mental illness are fighting a daily battle.

We are goddamn heroes winning wars behind closed doors. And that is absolutely nothing to trivialize.

To say that what we’re going through is synonymous to the struggles a person has to deal with without the added complication of mental illness is, quite frankly, insulting.

I know, because I’ve been on both sides of that coin.

I remember how much “easier” the tough times were when I only had to deal with the inconveniences or discomforts of the moment, and didn’t have to worry about whether or not I would be paralyzed to the point of not being able to get out of bed the next morning.

It was a simpler time back then. And that simply is not my reality anymore.

Final word.

It’s important we continue working to break the stigma against mental illness. It’s important we create dialogue and discuss it openly, without judgement but rather with acceptance.

That said, these things do not equate to pretending that those who suffer from mental illness don’t have any health struggles. That approach helps no one, and only leaves those of us who struggle feeling more isolated, unaccepted, and trivialized in our battles.

This wasn’t my mother’s intention, she wasn’t trying to make me feel this way — it’s hard for her to imagine and stomach the fact that I am struggling so much. She wants a better life than that for me — she’s hoping that I'm wrong.

I get why she feels this way…

But the fact of the matter is that my anxiety, paranoia and panic attacks cannot simply be wished like dust in the wind.

They are ever-present, lurking under the surface, and I have to field my anxiety, in particular, every day to keep my life on track.

A little bit of understanding, and appreciation for that struggle, would go a long way.

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