Yesterday I published this poster on Facebook:
Many people Liked it and left approving comments. Two comments, though, surprised me.
“Mental illness is a disease,” wrote one person. “I did not and do not choose to have this disease nor do I choose to live this way. That post [is] ignorant, cruel, and judgmental.”
Wrote another, “oh I had control over this. silly me, good to know. aids patients too right?”
I know neither of these writers. But I can guess where they’re coming from.
Every day I meet people who’ve been blamed for their illness. That’s probably the main reason so many avoid seeking help from a therapist. They’re afraid that I, like others in their lives — including people who love them and mean well but don’t know what they’re talking about — will blame them for their anxiety, or depression, or addiction, or their struggles with relationships.
Of course this blaming goes back centuries. The stigmatizing of mental illness has roots in a dark past when emotional and psychological problems were attributed to possession by evil spirits, and victims were condemned, imprisoned, even tortured.
All that sounds absurd to us now. Yet every day I hear echoes of it in session.
The husband who advises his depressed wife to Just get a grip. The mom of a school-phobic child who answers all my attempts to explain anxiety by repeating But she has to go to school. The wife of a recovering alcoholic who wishes aloud that he’d resume drinking because He used to be more fun.
There is ignorance here, of course, but also fear. Mental illness scares us because (a) we don’t understand it and (b) we sense how vulnerable we ourselves are. So we explain it in ways that oversimplify it (depressed people are just weak) and put maximum distance between this sickness and ourselves (I’ve got a grip). Or we explain it in ways that imply we can somehow control it. (Hey, don’t be so serious. Relax, have a drink.)
Actually, most of the causes of mental illness are, at least initially, beyond our control — like losses or abuse or traumas we experience, or how we were parented or taught to handle feelings or relationships.
Personally I believe emotional problems are unavoidable. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t struggled with some degree of anxiety or depression, who isn’t addicted to something or other, and whose relationships are entirely problem-free.
This is true because, even if we’re not abused or traumatized as kids, even if we grow up adequately loved and cared for by reasonably healthy parents, we are still forced to adapt to and live in a culture that does not promote emotional wellness.
It’s a culture that values things over people, money over relationship, comfort over growth, intellect over feeling, image over authenticity, and encourages us constantly to try to control things which neither can be nor should be controlled.*
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” wrote Jiddu Krishnamurti. And when forced to adjust to society’s sickness, we ourselves sicken.
Which was the whole point of the post.
So no, we are not to blame.
And no, we are not helpless.
In the end there usually is a connection between how healthy we are and how we live, how well we understand and take care of ourselves.
And that, friend, is an entirely good thing.
Because it is that which makes recovery possible.
*The subject of my book Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries to control everything and how we can stop (Lioncrest, 2015). Available at amazon.com.