Mental illness: Discover 15 things you need to know right now to help.

Jennifer Jones - The Downtown Kid

I've learned that if you can't laugh at your mental illness(es) sometimes, you'll lose your mind -- and your sense of self. And if you love someone who's living life with mental illness or perhaps you're looking to find tools to help others understand what you're going through, here are some things you might appreciate knowing so you both stay a little saner.
Crying woman pretending to smileFeatured Photo by Andrei Lazarev on Unsplash

1. Mental illness is a real thing, and it's not a choice.

No one who truly suffers from mental illness is making it up. Mental illness has a uniquely impressive ability to ruin relationships, hurt everyone involved, lead our minds down dark alleys, and take over our lives. It is a constant battle for some shred of peace.

You lose a lot of time wondering why you can't just be "normal," even though you have zero idea what that even means. You cry a bunch. You struggle to eat, sleep, and breathe. It's exhausting. And that's the oversimplified explanation.

2. No, we can't just get over it.

Please don't ever tell a person with a mental illness to "get over it" or "snap out of it." That's insulting. Don't mock them for it. Don't downplay it or act like it's not a big deal just because you might be lucky enough not to understand the agony of living with a hijacked mind that doesn't seem to have an off switch, or operating controls, or a map. If we could just wiggle our noses and *poof* it away, we would absolutely do that.

3. We will lose ourselves to this from time to time.

If you're around long enough, you'll get a front-row seat to this one. You'll think that you're getting some glimpse of the "real" us and that everything else you've seen has been a ruse to hide the monster underneath, but you'll have that bit wrong. We'll be surprised when something we don't recognize as a part of us comes falling out of our bodies, too.

Actions we regret. Words we don't mean. Threats and other craziness we'd never carry out. You're wondering what's going on when we usually don't know what just happened (until it's fully overthought via the lens of hindsight). You can't punish us for these outbursts more severely than we'll punish ourselves. I promise.

Understand that there are things that have been trapped inside of us for a long time, and in a moment of fear, panic, or desperation, they took over our ability to create reason. The compulsion that escapes us is a byproduct of the long-term struggle with the things in our world, particularly those we can't control.

4. Please don't try to "fix" us.

On the one hand, your support is invaluable to us. Thank you so much for loving us through all the frustration and intensity. Many of us would be dead without you, literally. We can be quite impulsive/compulsive, which almost always blows up in our faces. We often look to you as a compass for normalcy, both to teach us what that even is and to create that kind of life with us.

On the other hand, there's nothing to "fix," and you'll exhaust yourself trying, which we don't want for you. We're just wired differently. It makes it harder to get through the day, but there's nothing actually wrong with us as people. Let's just hold space for each other and love one another through the tough days, okay? We've all got 'em.

5. Please be consistent.

It's hard for anyone to go through life with people you can't count on, but when you live with a mental illness, the effects of those people in your life, especially if you care deeply for them, are exacerbated. Eventually, the inconsistencies stack up and get served with a nice side of anxiety, and everything becomes brain chaos for us. We're desperate for stability.

We're terrified when people lash out because we often can't understand how we upset them and we freeze up in fear. We've lived a life so full of it, that we're sometimes driven through that fear to say almost anything to end the confrontation, which, of course, just makes things worse. We know this. We know it doesn't work that way. It's agonizing.

We developed our coping mechanisms by trying to survive the treatment of others. Don't add to that. It takes help from people (usually professionals) to call us on our patterns and addictions and teach us not to be destructive. That's honestly the last thing we're trying to be. We're kind of just terrified. Of everything.

Be consistent. Be there. Be patient. Tell us it's all going to be okay. Say it again. Be our home, our safe place. The benefits for you are unlimited.

6. Our coping doesn't always make sense.

Over the years, we developed coping skills to get through the day. We count things or have routines to get us through. We repeat mantras that comfort. Some of us retreat. Others find people because the silence of being alone is too loud.

You'll see us cope with a situation one way. And then sometimes, the same thing will happen, and we'll have a totally different reaction. It's confusing, we know. It's not on purpose. We're confused, too.

Please know that all we're ever trying to do is sort our worlds and shut our heads up. They're loud and scary and chaotic. I'd say we're sorry that we don't make sense sometimes, but we're not. We'd rather confuse you a little than wish a genuine understanding of this crap on you. Our coping mechanisms might seem "off," but for many of us, that's the only normal we've ever known. For some, they're the only reason we're still around.

Gently express your concern if we've picked up some unhealthy ones. Outside of obvious things like substance abuse, we're very likely not going to understand what you're saying to us. We might even argue with you because we just can't see it properly.

Please breathe through this with us. Don't yell. Just breathe. We're trying. We're trying so hard.

7. We're neither predictable nor unpredictable.

We know that this is extremely frustrating, that it makes us look volatile even. We're actually some of the stablest people because we're always fighting so hard for it. By the time we finally do fall apart, we've been fighting for so long we just don't have anything left to keep the dam from breaking. Rinse. Repeat. Stick around long enough and you'll see the pattern.

Dam breaks and BOOM. We're crying, yelling, threatening, running, smothering, shutting down, or whatever else. Sometimes all of it. We know we're scaring you away, but we can't help it most of the time. It's all just chaos up there when we get to this point. All the coping mechanisms have failed us and we're in panic mode.

Please understand it's going to happen here and there no matter how hard we fight it. Please remember we are always fighting it. We know it's not always rational to the degree it tends to explode out of us. It exhausts us, too. We're breaking our own hearts because we know we're breaking yours. We understand if you can't take it, and most leave because they can't, but we really hope you'll love us despite it.

8. We really want to trust you.

If your person suffers from a mental illness, ask them questions about it and listen without judgment. We want to trust you with this struggle because we desperately need you to understand or our heads will never stop churning about it.

Know that this is a huge deal for us, to let you in and be vulnerable with you. We are risking relapses in our recovery by doing it. Please respect that.

For example, the codependents are opening Pandora's Box, a gloriously neurotic trip down self-deprecation lane. We'll want to share our lives with you, but we'll also be terrified that we'll fall back into the vicious cycle that leads to thinking we're the most unworthy people on the planet.

Most codependents will be afraid you're somehow unhappy and that you're going to leave us. Our entire sense of self-worth can get wrapped up in you, and those of us who are aware of how that happens and how unhealthy it is don't want that for either of us. So to give you the keys to the kingdom is massive.

To be vulnerable and trusting, my obsessive-compulsive friends are signing up for a list of behaviors they'll have to work into their days so that they can find the mental space to accept all the new variations to what little stability they've created. Usually, their safety is found in their homes. Consider yourself blessed if you're welcome there. It's probably the ultimate sign of trust from them.

People with C-PTSD are paranoid and question everything because we've been gaslighted and manipulated so much that we're convinced there's some ulterior motive or some code for what you mean. At the first doubt, we fall down a rabbit hole that leads to overthinking, convulsions, panic attacks, potential substance abuse, lashing out, and more.

That said...

9. Please just say what you mean the first time.

We're always confused. Not because we're dumb. You don't need to talk to us like children. We're just struggling to sort our realities, largely because we don't trust anyone or, worse, because we trust everyone and only see the best in them.

If you can clearly say what you want to say the first time with the intent and context you mean, that'd be so helpful. If we ask you questions about it or rephrase things in conversation, we're not trying to be difficult or split hairs. We're trying to understand you. Fully. We respect you enough that we want to do this for you, but we also can't leave any holes.

When you leave things out, it can trigger our compulsion to fill in the blanks, which never works out well for anyone. Filling in all the gaps helps silence the noise in our heads, which only brings good things your way, although it will likely be frustrating for you in the moment. Please try to talk to us without anger or condescension. Don't let us guess what you mean. That's actually quite cruel.

10. Don't tear us down.

We don't need you to fix us, but we also don't need you to rip apart what we spend ridiculous amounts of mental and emotional energy trying to hold together.

You're allowed to have your emotional response to our moments of chaos, but please think twice before calling us names, walking out on us, or otherwise attacking us personally. Most of us just aren't built to take it anymore. Please don't make it harder than it has to be. There's a saturation point where we won't be able to unhear your hurtful words, and then we'll put them on loop in our heads.

Besides, personal attacks aren't necessary, and they only cause us to start doubting you and regret putting our trust in you. That type of stuff tears apart mentally healthy people, so imagine the energy it takes for us to keep forgiving and fighting for the shared goal.

11. We're not "crazy."

It's an illness. It's not us hanging out being irrational for kicks and giggles. Those seeking professional help are looking to rewrite years of faulty programming and learn healthier habits. We're not insane; we're exhausted.

There are people, too, who can't help some of their behaviors. A person who needs to turn the door latch a specific number of times to lock it, for example, needs to do that to make it through the day.

They know their door is locked. This is knowledge they possess, but if the person didn't have those "crazy" rituals, they'd have to leave work and go home and check. Sometimes, despite the rituals, they actually do have to go check.

That doesn't make them "crazy." If anything, it infuriates them to feel like this compulsion is in charge of their lives. We know that it doesn't make sense. Doesn't mean we can help it. Definitely don't need to hear someone we love tell us we're insane.

Ultimately, too, calling people "crazy" creates a stigma that needs to be addressed. It discourages people from getting the help they need because they don't want to experience the shame that gets projected on them for it.

Stop it.

12. It's not always about you.

It's really easy to take it personally when someone with a mental illness has a complete come-apart right after you do something to seemingly upset them. Or, more frightening, when they're falling apart and you can't even sort why. Sure, it might be about you, but pretty often it's not.

Even when it is about you, there are times when our reaction is way more than the situation deserves. That's because people with mental illnesses tend to carry around mental and emotional baggage that doesn't belong to them. You might have said something to trigger us, but that doesn't mean everything we're now breaking down over has anything to do with that.

On that note...

13. Understand our triggers.

This isn't as hard as it might sound. We're trying to tell you about them anyway because we want to trust you and love you openly and fully. In some cases, we want you to know so that when it happens, we can have the hope that you'll blow it off and not take it personally. We're usually terrified you're out the next door, too, so before we get too involved, we're all like, "Here... this is what's up." It gives you a chance to bail before we get invested.

I promise you, though, the vast majority of us have overthought this issue to the point that we've made 3am lists to get them out of our heads in the hopes we'll sleep that night. Feel free to ask. We'll share. We really don't want to be triggered. It sucks for everyone.

Honestly, too, if you stick around long enough and just pay attention, you'll sort the obvious ones for yourself. When you see them, ask. Don't assume you've mastered the thing. And sometimes asking helps us learn about them, too. Win/win.

14. We are strong as hell.

Many of us normalized horrific situations growing up. A great chunk of us found the only control in our lives came from doing awful things to ourselves and, by proxy, others. We tell someone about our normal and their jaws drop, and we're just there like, "What'd I say?"

And we're serious. We don't know which part of our story is alarming. We will tell you the craziest things with straight faces because that's just how it was. It's a history lesson to us. And it's kind of terrifying, actually, not to have a grasp on normalcy.

Those of us (usually in therapy) facing the mental chaos and redefining our normal are even stronger. We're not perfect. And we're not done. And sure, you'll see us fall apart here and there. We'll scare you with it sometimes, even. But know this -- we've done this a thousand times in our lives, and we rebuild even better each time we crumble. Just hug it out with us. It's a process.

We grow when we face it. We learn to manage better when we're given the right tools and the right people stand with us. (Shout out to everyone doing that for their people!)

15. Please don't be scared of us.

We're tornados. We're tempests. We can be impulsive and compulsive. We'll hurt ourselves. We'll hurt everyone around us. Real talk, though. Everyone is capable of that and does that at some point in their lives. Don't judge us any differently for it, and don't be scared of us because we admit it.

We're not monsters. We just live a mentally complicated life. And we'll confuse the hell out of you. The face of mental illness is usually the brightest, happiest personality in the room. We're overcompensating. We're trying to make other people happy so they don't feel like we feel. Some of us are feeding codependency addictions. Others are just trying to "fake it until they make it."

We're still people. We just want to love you, be loved in return, and be accepted for who we are -- flawed individuals trying to be better every day.

Besides... isn't that what we're all doing?? We've just got a few more obstacles in our way and hope you'll be a touch sympathetic about it.

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I enjoy being connected to and engaged with the world around me, specifically my local downtown community in Memphis, TN. My personal interest lies in celebrating diversity as well as exploring mental health topics. But I also hope I can help you find the best ribs in town while we're at it.

Memphis, TN

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