Sorry I’m sick: on mental illness and guilt


Here I run the risk of putting two and two together and coming up with 42. But the truth is, the “thing that is wrong with me” has, in spite of years of therapy and treatment and reading and recognition, always – always – left me feeling a bit guilty.

No one is beating me with sticks. I’m not being persecuted by anyone but myself. I have food and a home and the love of animals and shoes that don’t hurt.

I usually feel like I don’t deserve the good that I have. I also feel awful when none of it seems to matter. There is where my faulty math comes in. Like many people with depression or other mental ills, I often feel guilty about my condition.

Guilt and shame are often a power couple. When I am at my lowest, I feel waves and waves of shame. And for years I’ve wondered why. Now, I wonder if that’s the dynamic at work here – does my guilt about my dodgy mental health sometimes double itself and create another shame-half?

Being something of a stuck record (it’s good to know who and what you are), this column does make a great carry-on about getting rid of the stigma of mental illness, and, yes, if you are someone who likes to minimise the trauma of it, you will be beaten like a Good Friday bobolee. But I don’t think enough has been said about how that stigma and those put-downs affect the person with the problems.

If you think of nothing else, remember this: when you make light of or disregard a person’s mental troubles, you’re giving them one more reason not to seek help.

We already have innumerable problems getting help without someone suggesting we don’t need it. If someone is suicidal, delusional, or in any way a threat to themselves or others, they should be given every chance to get help. If your words stood in the way, consider living with the consequences.

Yes, you read it right the first time.

Procrastination or not wanting to do things at all, in other words, displaying a profound loss of will-to-do, is one of the most common signs of depression and other problems. We’re not lazy. We are not shirking. We quite simply cannot. As that perfect phrase goes, “We are unable to can.”

But people functioning in a not mentally-compromised world have real trouble grasping this. If you know someone who just had surgery and is given bed-rest instructions, you’d be strapping them down to stay still and feeding them peeled grapes.

Most mental-health patients don’t get that. Instead we are left to feel guilty about all that we’ve failed to do.

It’s not just laundry, homework, our jobs, and visiting sick relatives we miss out on. We also miss the parties, hikes, trivia night at a friend’s house.

Being sad because someone hurt your feelings or anxious because of your annual work evaluation is not the same as being depressed or having an anxiety disorder.

But when you hold that up to your friend who does have a clinical condition, you trivialise their experience.

I don’t even know if it’s trivialising because it’s not even in the same category.

Certain things may exacerbate feelings of lowness and anxiety, but often there is a sort of nothingness. Again, there is just an inability to move forward. To move at all.

No one wants to be at the mercy of these things. If we could change them, we all would. We do not want attention but understanding. We’re not making excuses, we’re searching for empathy.

I found this repeatedly in my research and am, as is so often the case, in awe of how much you can still learn, no matter how long you’ve been in this situation: we can never have a day off.

I tell people all the time that every day is a fight and if I don’t fight, I’ll fall. But seeing it in different words had no small impact.

No, we don’t get to rest or have an off day or fall asleep on the job. If we do, then we are accused of not trying hard enough, of not wanting to get better enough.

We do want to get better, but we are human. And we get tired. And the fight is never-ending.

So, if you know us, work with us to find a good balance. Be a friend if you can, and if you can’t, at least don’t be an adversary.

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.


"Sorry I’m sick: on mental illness and guilt"

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