We’ve all heard the platitude it’s ok not to be ok. Except quite a lot of the time, it’s not ok. At all. Acceptance of mental health issues is very much conditional, and we are fooling ourselves if we think any different. We have a world of tolerance and understanding for those who suffer and are full of admiration for inspiring recovery stories, just as long as we don’t have to witness or experience the impact of someone's symptoms directly. We love an anecdote about hitting rock bottom and the glorious rise back to the top. We marvel at a person’s ability to come out the other side. However, the sad truth remains that it’s fine to have a mental illness, as long as you act like you don’t.
Mental health issues are often indicative of heightened sensitivity, creativity, intuition and empathy but we live in a culture that values conformity, commercial success, robustness, stability and industry. Some mental health issues can at best be managed and tolerated. Good days and bad days go with the territory. On a positive note, heightened appreciation of the good days means that joy is experienced at a contagious level when the mind is untroubled and mental health issues frequently act as a catalyst for seeking a more spiritually inspired way of living. However, the reality remains that the darker days of mental illness bring with them many unpalatable and at times odious characteristics. Instability, anger, unpredictability, unreliability, lack of enthusiasm, pessimism, world weariness, excruciating pain and paranoia can just describe a typical day. It’s exhausting to be around but even more exhausting to live. And yet, for so many, it’s a reality. And there’s no place for it in a world that values positivity, success, aesthetics and achievement. Despite the exhaustion of chronic emotional turmoil, intolerable guilt, self-loathing and complete apathy, we need to muster a smile, feign a laugh and engage with the world in order to survive, to hold onto our jobs, to care for our children and for the sake of our loved ones who just ‘want us to be happy.’ We live for the good days and learn to silently endure the bad because very few want to hear the honesty of the horror story as it unfolds.
And maybe that’s how it needs to be. Aside from the cultural demands to be industrious and successful, and the societal pressure to be positive and outgoing, melancholy isn’t exactly good for your health. However; rather than shunning people for their struggle, the pervading message needs to change. Happiness and positivity-only expectations can be replaced with acknowledgement and compassion for a universal suffering. People’s chances of improving are greatly increased by feeling seen in their pain and being free to experience it. We need to equip those struggling with pragmatic ways to cope with the rougher days and work on cultivating more empathy, tolerance, compassion and forgiveness. Skills such as emotional resilience and stress tolerance are for everyone and go a long way towards cultivating a humanitarian mindset and a more philanthropic society.
So, to the highly functioning, smiling sufferers, I see and feel you. Just because you carry it well, doesn’t mean it’s not heavy. Know you’re not alone; that many walk the same path but feel unable to vocalise their experience. Many know that it’s not in fact ok, to not be ok.
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