A few months ago my mother carried me to the ER after I had passed out in the parking lot only a few feet from the hospital entrance. I’d spent the hour prior with abdominal pain piercing through the right side of my body. My family members had watched me as I withered in pain on my living room couch. In any other case, this would have simply been an unfortunately painful stomach ache.
“Stop being so dramatic,” my sister joked in the living room prior to the hospitalization.
“Surgery? Oh crap,” she said hours later in the ER.
Ultimately this was physical pain coupled with a quick and easy operation to fix. Appendicitis and an appendectomy. Not a big deal considering how common it is, but still painful nonetheless.
“Do you have any metals in your body?” the nurse asked.
“Does lithium count?” I laughed.
The hospital bed wasn’t so bad. I definitely preferred this to the one without my personal belongings and a helper watching over my every move. I remember thinking how I’d promised my best friend I wouldn’t land myself in the hospital again any time soon. I suppose that was limited to psychiatric hospitalizations, so this didn’t really count. But it is quite funny, isn’t it? That my being in the hospital for appendicitis was loads simpler to explain to people than telling them about my other illness, you know, the less obvious one.
They certainly couldn’t see my inflamed appendix (and neither could I ever again after that pesky thing’s been removed), but they’d get it. They wouldn’t be utterly terrified of my being hospitalized for such a reason, or secretly doubt to themselves whether I was telling them the truth, or wonder if I was making it all up just to avoid responsibilities, or perhaps that if I had just exercised enough and meditated and ate the right foods and thought positively I wouldn’t have gotten appendicitis in the first place. No one would dare insist I hold off on taking painkillers to ease the post-surgery pain. Why, then, is the rhetoric surrounding a mental health hospitalization all too different?
Unfortunately, many of us that struggle with our mental health have, at one point or another, found ourselves in conversations with individuals pushing their well-intended (I have to keep reminding myself of this or else I’d go insane), unsolicited advice regarding mental illness. You know, the same advice people who live with mental illness continue to wince at.
Pull up your bootstraps, go outside, get some sun, you don’t have depression, bipolar, OCD, you name it. Stop making excuses. Put down those meds. You’re taking the “easy way out.”
Gosh, if only that was the easy way out. It’d probably make it a whole lot easier to accept the idea of gaining tons of weight on antipsychotics or side effects from antidepressants. Because unless there is a blood test, an x-ray, a doctor telling you your appendix has been filled with pus and you then have three triangular scars to prove it afterwards, it’s all in your head and you’re just not trying hard enough.
The first question I asked the doctor after my appendix was removed was, “can I keep it?” At the time it may have seemed pretty odd to ask that question, but in hindsight I have truly been so conditioned to disbelieve my mental health symptoms that I felt I must ask to carry proof of my physical ailments as well lest I get doubted again. And again. And again.
And of course,
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I hope there comes a day when we can learn to stop listening to those who continue to doubt whether I and others living with mental illness are truly struggling. Whether our symptoms are real, or we’re just seeking attention. Whether we’re truly sick, or we’re just not trying hard enough. Whether we’re making improvements, or were just faking all along. Whether we should keep our struggles to ourselves to prevent from burning under the stigma, or share it with others only to face the outcome we so badly wanted to avoid.
It’s about time we start changing how we view mental illness.
Bisma Suleman is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “insane in the membrane,” typically runs on alternate Fridays.