Physical illness vs mental illness?

*This piece will discuss my personal experience with mental illness (anxiety, depression, bulimia, ptsd, bpd) versus physical illness (cancer). Both mental and physical illness vary person to person. Illness is not all or nothing – people experience it differently. With that being said, this post is not to invalidate anyone’s circumstances or struggles. I am simply voicing my own personal experience on how mental illness continues to be treated differently than physical illness.*

Before I dive into the depths of my personal encounter with various illnesses, I think it is important to touch on the aspect of health. We all have health. We all have physical health (our body) and we all have mental health (our mind, thoughts, emotions). Only when our health becomes jeopardized, we may develop illness. If our physical health is poor, we can develop physical illness. If our mental health is poor, we may develop mental illness. However, we all have health.

Mental illness refers to severe and long-lasting impairment and distress of our mind. This may result in extreme emotions, thoughts and behaviours.

Physical illness refers to severe and long-lasting impairment and distress of our physical body. This may result in physical diseases such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, MS, CP etc.

Mental illness is often invisible to the outside world. By invisible, I mean that it is often happening inside of our head. We may struggle with dark thoughts, crippling anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, etc. We may look like we’re happy, yet we’re actually crumbling. However, physical illness is often visible by the whole world. If we have cancer, we may have lost all of our hair. If we have CP or MS, we may be in a wheelchair or using mechanisms to help us walk. Yes, all illnesses profoundly impact our lives. But, the ominous feeling of our illness being invisible to the outside world makes us feel like we are all alone.

Despite numerous campaigns that bring awareness to mental illness, our society is still conditioned to empathize with those struggling with physical illness, whereas the severity of mental illness continues to be under-looked. When I was going through chemotherapy in 2014, people understood if I couldn’t get out of bed or go to social events. I was reassured that it was completely okay to sleep for 16 hours a day. It was even suggested. I was flooded with love, support and flowers. However, when my anxiety was overwhelming or my depression wouldn’t allow me to get out of bed, I was viewed as lazy, overreacting and attention-seeking. I often felt like I was so damn alone because my feelings were swept under the rug. All I really needed was someone to reassure me. I needed someone to tell me that it was okay to listen to what I need – just as I would if I was battling a physical illness. Unfortunately, feeling profound shame and guilt for having mental illness led me to talk about it less and less. I pushed it away and pretended that I was okay when in reality, I was dying inside.

Not only is mental illness underlooked, it is often invalidated. Nothing feels worse than finally opening up to someone (“I can’t shake this sadness”), and getting the reply of (“Don’t worry, everyone has those days!”). It invalidates our struggles. It makes us feel as though our extreme emotions and distressing thoughts are normal. Because of this, many people do not reach out and receive the help that they desperately need. Yet, when someone says, “Ow, my stomach really hurts today. I feel like I might be sick”, people reply with, “Oh no! You poor thing. You should go home and rest”. We discredit mental illness with our words and behaviours (without even fully acknowledging it).

Furthermore, physical illness is regarded as life-threatening. The majority of people are horrified by the thought of getting diagnosed with cancer. Yes, cancer is a terrible, life-threatening disease, just as many mental illnesses are. Borderline personality disorder often coincides with severe self-harm behaviours. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an abnormally low body weight due to food restriction. As we can see, mental illnesses are just as life-threatening and serious as physical illnesses. However, mental illness continues to be viewed as attention-seeking or selfish. “People have it a lot worse than you.” “Why are you sad? You have every reason to be happy!” “I don’t understand; you have nothing to be scared about.” These sentences should never be a response to someone battling mental illness, just as they would never be said to someone fighting a physical illness.

Additionally, many of us fail to realize that mental illness and physical illness are often interconnected. Individuals with physical illness are more likely to develop mental illness. For example, many people battling cancer are diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Our physical state affects our mental state. We feel grief and loss of innocence and normality. In addition, individuals with mental illness (who do not receive the help they need) are more likely to develop a physical illness. For example, some people struggling with mental illness abuse drugs and alcohol. These substances can significantly impact our physical health. This shows us how interrelated human illness is.

For those who have read this entire post and still fail to see my argument, remind yourself that mental illness is actually an illness of our body. Mental illness is a disease of the brain. As we learned in childhood, the brain is an organ of our body. So, just like we may develop a disease of the lungs, thyroid, heart, etc., the brain may become diseased. You can call it a physical illness if you’d like, as our brain is tangible and concrete, just like all of our other organs.

This gives us something to think about the next time we feel as though our mental illness isn’t that serious. Spoiler alert: it is, and it requires professional help.

My hope is that one day society will view physical illness and mental illness as equally important. They both significantly impact our lives. They are both serious and require attention. Just because mental illness is invisible doesn’t mean it has to stay invisible. Please reach out. You do not have to struggle alone.

Keep on shining,

Emily

 

Left picture: September 2014. One day after chemotherapy. One glance and you can see how sick I look. Oh, the sympathy I received from having cancer…….

Right picture: December 2016. We see a bright smile so we think, she’s happy! She’s doing great! Yet, I was suicidal, abusing alcohol and self-harming.  I was struggling to stay afloat. I was waiting for the day it would all end.

 

I would have missed out on so much

The hurt I’m feeling nobody can see. I use a smile to cover it up. I cry myself to sleep each night in hopes that I will not wake up. But that doesn’t matter because nobody knows. Nobody will ever know the true pain I’m feeling. The ache in the heart and water that fills my eyes. Each morning I wake up miserable and can’t help but wonder why I’m still here. I don’t belong here. Nobody truly knows who I am and what I want from life; to be honest, I don’t either. I’m lost in this huge space, this world of noise, with no direction of where to go. I’m broken inside to many tiny pieces that do not have the ability to be put back together. I’m the deep cracks built within a rock. No matter how hard anyone tries, the flaws just won’t go away. Nothing will change me. No one can. Not even I. I have become something I am stranger to. Each day I feel myself die inside a little more. The days fly by and nothing changes. I’m still broken and hurt. But one day I know it will all stop. I’ll be free and finally experience true happiness.

-2011

When I read this piece, I can feel my heart ache. I can still remember the excruciating pain that I felt. But before I begin, I want to clarify what I meant by “free and finally experience true happiness”. I wasn’t talking about the butterflies, rainbows and flowers kind of happiness. I wasn’t imagining the happiness that I’ve finally found 6 years later. I was imagining the freedom and happiness of no longer being on the Earth. I was envisioning that day that I finally gave in and ended my life.

This pains me. I cannot believe that I was so hopeless at age 17. I hadn’t went to prom yet, I hadn’t graduated from high school yet. I hadn’t… I hadn’t…. I hadn’t.

But, in my mind, I had experienced enough. I didn’t think that things would ever get better. I had been struggling with anxiety for four years. I had developed bulimia nervosa. I began to self-harm. I had lost a friend to suicide. I had severe depression – not yet recognized by the outside world. I gave up thinking about true happiness as I was consumed by sadness and pain. My brain saw a tragic ending to my story and with that, came the happiness that I was so desperately seeking.

This is where I want to touch on the topic of teenage depression. As many of you know, teenagers are very susceptible to suicide. Why? Well, the teenage brain is not fully developed. They lack the development of the prefrontal cortex and executive function. This means that they struggle with decision making, staying rational and seeing beyond the intense emotions that they feel.. This helps explain why teenagers are impulsive and ‘emotional’. Teenagers often view their situation as ‘the end of the world’ because in their brain, they cannot see things ever getting better. This is not to minimize what they are going through. Their feelings are valid, but their interpretations of the duration of sadness and pain is exaggerated.

The reason that I touch on this topic is because I lived this. I had tunnel vision. I thought that the pain that I was feeling would last for the rest of my life. And, I couldn’t live like that. I thought that I would have to end my life in order to feel happiness.

But, no. We may feel as though things will never getting better… that we will always be sad. We will never get better. We will never get over heartbreak. We will never live without a cloud of despair. But, that just isn’t true. We can overcome, and we can thrive.

For any of you who feel like you cannot continue on, please know that there is so much support and love out there for you. I’m not saying that things will be easy and that there is a quick fix, but recovery and happiness is possible. You do not have to suffer alone. You do not have to go through your hardship by yourself. Please reach out and ask for help.

If I hadn’t reached out, I would not be here today. I would not have found a job that I love. I would not have experienced graduating from University, going to Prom, smiling at my reflection in the mirror, etc. I would not have met my best friends. I would not have seen the true beauty in living. I would have missed out on so much. Things are not over for you. Things are just beginning.

Keep on shining,

Emily

Left picture: Living on the edge until I finally gave in to my urges. 2011.

Right picture: Recovering and learning to be in love with the life that I have created. 2017.