There comes a point in each disabled or mentally ill individual's life where he or she will have to face the public. "The public" can be anyone from friends and family to co-workers or strangers on the street. As a person with a mental illness, I sometimes feel as though it is obvious to the world around me, as though there is some sort of mark or sign that says, "I am different. I am not your equal because I face depression daily and you cannot handle this weight I bear." And while I do not wear any such sign, as a kid with cerebral palsy who'd had corrective surgery on my achille's tendon, the leg brace I wore was a visible sign that I was different.
As I've stated before, people tend to fear what they are ignorant of. After learning to walk with my brace on and entered "the world," it was almost like walking into foreign territory. Physical abnormalities of any kind draw attention and my leg brace was no different. At the grocery store, I received everything from blatant stares to veiled glances from those who tried not to look at it though their eyes betrayed them. Parents who I have no right to judge judged me when their children asked questions as I walked by and they held their children closer as if to shield them from whatever ailment I might have. I found myself welcomed into a new community, though; the instant bond of the handicapped, the disabled, the visibly flawed. Even at age 6, when I crossed paths with someone in a wheelchair or with some other man made apparatus, I had a newfound respect for them and we would give each other a silent nod, smile, or just a look of understanding.
Attending a new school or church was especially interesting. Here were people I would spend time with, people I would get to know and who would get to know me rather than just passing me in an aisle in the store. The curiousity was always evident, but social guidelines generally prevented questions people were dying to ask. Sometimes friends would finally muster up the courage and stutter their apologies about bringing up the subject, but would I be offended if they asked why I wore a brace?
In truth, I didn't mind answering questions at all and often found them humorous. They were the kind of questions that are humorous only because someone else is ignorant about a subject with which you are well aquainted, but it was fun nonetheless. Among my favorites were, "Do you have to wear it in the shower? Do you have to wear it when you sleep at night?" It was especially fun when friends wanted to try my brace on for themselves. Forgetting how long and painful it had been to learn to walk again myself, I would laugh hysterically as they stumbled around awkwardly with the device intended to help me walk the way my friends walked with ease.
While explaining my cerebral palsy and leg brace to my friends was not an issue for me, I did find it tiresome to explain to strangers who were brave enough to ask. I found that in explaining the truth, people were bored and suddenly seemed to regret asking, and so in an effort to please the public, simplify my life, and have a little fun, I invented all sorts of stories to explain my leg brace and horrify people. "Well," I'd begin, "I used to have this turtle named Tor-Tor. Tor-Tor was my best friend and we did everything together. One of his favorite things was to go out into the yard. One day we were outside and he got away from me. He went into the street and I noticed right when a car was coming. I ran out to try to help him and..." I'd pause for effect, "the car hit me and killed Tor-Tor and now I have to wear this brace." Such a sad story compelled my listeners to apologize to me and immediately silenced any question they might ask.
People love a dramatic story like that. It is short and devastating and gives them something to tell their friends about so they can share a moment of pity for someone. But that is all they want--a moment of pity, more than that and it is uncomfortable.
Enter depression. Unlike cerebral palsy and my leg brace, depression has a much different impact on my life. It is generally not outwardly apparent and people do not want to know about it. Depression is not just a story about one event in someone's life. While there are people who are blessed with a "depressive episode" or depression that may be attached to a single event and is later "cured," those with chronic depression or another mental illness bear that weight everyday feeling isolated from everyone else.
Questions people ask about mental illness are seldom funny and often frustrating. "Have you taken your meds? Why don't you just 'get over it?'" In Adult Partial Hospitalization, Shelly emphasized again and again that, while annoying, a question of medication from a loved one was a (flawed) way of saying, "I am concerned about you. I love you and taking a pill is something that can be done in a situation where I am so powerless to help you." And to those who do not deal with mental illness themselves, it can be exhausting and annoying to hear someone talk again and again about how miserable they are, but for as much as they hate hearing it, the person feeling it hates it a thousand times more. If it were simply a matter of "getting over it"--we would.
After a stay in Partial, one of the biggest concerns patients shared was re-entering the "real world" and facing all the questions co-workers and friends and family would ask about their absence. Knowing that people were concerned, we wanted to let them know we were doing better but knew it was not appropriate for one reason or another to tell everyone about our mental illnesses and the real reasons for our absences from "life." And so we would look to Shelly, the woman who told us it was ok if we heard her voice in our heads (but other voices, we should be reporting to medical personnel) and the woman who had helped us get to the place where we were ready to enter the "real world" again, for answers.
Some were surprised to find that in this instance, Shelly supported lying. "It's none of their business," she would say. "If you are not comfortable telling them about your mental illness, make something up. You don't have to lie, but it's fine if you do." And in our lighter sessions, we'd create all kinds of stories to share with "the public" and laugh as they got more and more outrageous. While a "cover story" was a new idea to many of the "Partial people" (as I liked to call us), as a child with cerebral palsy and a leg brace, I had learned long ago how to satisfy the curiousity of people who didn't really want the truth, but to hear a story that would provide a moment of sadness, sympathy, and pity before they moved on to the next one.
I have been working on this post for weeks now. I like to be able to write a post with a neat conclusion--to provide that "story" that my readers (however few you may be) can hear and walk away from feeling satisfied. The truth, though, is that for people with mental illness, it has no neat ending. It is a weight we bear daily. Some days it wears on us more than others and some days it is almost unnoticeable, but even on the best day, it is there, lurking in the shadows, in the stillness, in the silence, in the quiet of our souls. We cope daily and when we are lucky, we are stronger for it. Some things, however, just have no tidy ending. Some stories have no satisfying conclusion.