By Karen Lowinger
I’ve read countless articles, many on The Mighty, about the struggle of having an invisible illness and the way other people judge the “validity” of people’s conditions. I’ve also read about people who aren’t taken seriously when they express their most intimate, dark thoughts to family, professionals and friends.1
I’m a psychologist. Not too long ago I was reunited with many other mental health workers (psychologists, psychiatrists, researchers and professors were in attendance.) The event was a presentation of a type of therapy and when the speaker began talking, he asked us how mental illness affects a person. Someone answered a person with a mental illness has difficulties and struggles with certain areas of his life. Another person answered that the mentally ill suffer greatly. And then a third person said mentally ill people don’t function in society. I was waiting for someone to refute this, but instead everyone nodded and the speaker actually agreed and said “very good.”
My heart was beating really fast. It was partly because I didn’t know these people very well and I was struggling a bit with social anxiety. I hadn’t contemplated speaking up. But my heart was also beating fast because I was angry. That statement and the fact it wasn’t even questioned is exactly the reason why “high-functioning” people with mental illnesses are sometimes not taken seriously.
I can be dying inside while going through the motions of the day.6 It’s not difficult for me to know how others expect me to act. Acting fine is a cognitive process. You can probably mention right now how an emotionally stable or “mentally sane” person is supposed to act. It really is simple. A generally accepted lifestyle is one where a person wakes up every day, looks presentable, takes care of stuff that needs to be taken care of, eats and goes to sleep. This can sometimes be done regardless of how you feel inside. To say it’s difficult is an understatement, but it’s not impossible.
These “high-functioning” people don’t do it because they want to fool others, they do it because they want to produce and be a part of society. They try so hard to beat their illnesses or disorders. They don’t want to rely on others to take care of them.
So when a “high-functioning” person asks for help or admits to himself and to someone else his struggles, it takes a lot of bravery. These people have worked every single day to build a “normal” world for themselves are terrified of admitting mental illness, and when they finally do and are met with rejection, little understanding and no empathy from a mental health worker, it is devastating.
My compromise with my career is very clear to me, but I have to admit I have been blessed (and cursed) to see this because I, myself, struggle with my own disorders.
If you struggle with not being taken seriously, my advice to you is to trust you know yourself so much more than anybody else. Nobody has the right to undermine your difficulties.7 If they do, it’s their issue. Keep looking for the person who listens to you and takes your feelings into account. Don’t feel demoralized or flawed. I know it’s a tough pill to swallow when you ask for help from a mental health worker who should be able to understand you but doesn’t. Again, this is a flaw in their own understanding of the human mind.
By the way, yes I did speak up. With a bit of a red face I refuted what they all agreed to and told them it’s a terrible mistake to discard the presence of a mental disorder in relation to the functionality of a person. I added functionality is sometimes a symptom, depending on the illness and the person.