The least magical words ever


The only sentence more irksome than, “There’s nothing wrong with me,” is, “There’s nothing wrong with you.” This casually callous statement – don’t quote me, I don’t have the official figures – sums up almost everything wrong with our approach to mental wellbeing. “There’s nothing wrong with you” is often a precursor to the even more villainous utterance, “Just snap out of it.”

Of course! Who wouldn’t? You are depressed, anxious, delusional, afraid, obsessive, angst-ridden, suicidal, manic, tearing out your hair, chewing your cuticles, sleepless, over-sleeping, pacing, not getting your work done, and all along there was this obvious and brilliant solution.

Just snap out of it. Thank you.

Let’s turn this around for minute: Recently broke a wrist? Stop thinking about the pain; snap out of it. Arthritis acting up? Toothache? Don’t like that new haircut? Did a loved one recently pass away? Look, it doesn’t have to hurt. Try snapping out of it.

Who would try to tell an actual human person (those two don’t always go together) that a migraine and a compulsion to wipe the kitchen counter every five minutes are in the same league?

This is exactly what a good therapist or counsellor tries to do. They don’t always get thanked for it.

Consider, doctor says: “It’s not easy to understand what your loved one is going through. It seems like they should be able to just set it aside. But think about it for a minute: when you are in pain, can you just ignore it?”

The person visibly stiffens, like someone preparing to get into the regular teller line at a commercial bank on the last Friday of the month. Then comes the stare they use to try to get their children to take a bath.

When that doesn’t work the big guns have to come out. Clipped, defensive monologue ensues: You don’t know what you’re talking about (the obvious one). The boy/girl/man/woman is looking for attention. You’re not here all the time, you can’t possibly understand (now this one is likely true, but not as relevant as they think). The person they’re discussing “can be normal-normal one minute, and then all of a sudden, they start to act up.”

To this hostile interlocutor, it is inconceivable that there could be any response. The thing that person doesn’t ever, ever think about is that simply because they do not know how to respond to any of those things, does not mean that others are similarly limited in their thinking.

The things these people – family, friends, et al – forget or ignore all the time is that no one wants to be in a state of distress. If you’re depressed you’re no fun to be around. If you suffer from social anxiety, you’re not around for much of anything. If you show compulsive behaviours, people are going to say you’re weird (if they’re being kind). If you have a food addiction, you’re a pig (no one is ever kind about this one).

People want a snap-out-of-it solution because what the (likely undiagnosed) patient is presenting is making other people uncomfortable. Or, all the gods forbid, it’s inconvenient. Or, it nags at a little something at the back of the mind that reminds them of something they once felt. Or they genuinely, overwhelmingly simply do not care.

The idea of snap-out-of-itness, that someone can simply stop having the experience they’re having, has endured in spite of education, therapy, medication, advertisements for medications and movies about really nice psychoanalysts. The how and why are the same: it’s easy.

It takes the daunting process of help-seeking away from the equation. It puts the responsibility for whatever the manifestation of pain or illness is squarely on the person suffering and ignores the not insignificant role of environment and interactions.

When I was a toddler, and never stopped talking, my father would pretend to hypnotise me. “You are getting sleepy. You are getting very sleepy,” he would say in his best hack-magician’s voice. I’d squeeze my eyes shut and pretend I was under a spell. I think this bought him about twenty or thirty seconds of peace and silence. “Now, snap out of it!” he’d say, fearing I’d explode if I wasn’t allowed to resume mile-a-minute conversation.

It was a nice trick. He got a moment to catch his breath and I got to pretend he could do magic.

It was a nice fantasy.

Remember to talk to your doctor or therapist if you want to know more about what you read here. In many cases, there’s no single solution or diagnosis to a mental health concern. Many people suffer from more than one condition.


"The least magical words ever"

More in this section