Some People Will Be Unable To Understand Your Mental Illness

But don’t give up on them if they’re willing to try.
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A dear friend, now in her 80s, has never had a headache outside of that accompanied by the cold or flu. To her, the idea of migraines is unfathomable. To have a headache so severe that it requires total darkness and silence to bear it is unfathomable for her.

It’s not that she doesn’t believe it. Since she’s never experienced it, she can’t comprehend the severity. Experience is part of understanding.

She’s a wonderful person, full of empathy and love. She just doesn’t understand headaches. Like her, many people you know will be unable to understand mental illness.

The Mystery

Try as they may, the concept of your worst enemy living inside your head will never make sense to some people. And really, can you blame them? Doesn’t it sometimes feel like an impossibility to you?

There are days when bipolar makes you a stranger to yourself. How do you explain that to someone who’s never been there? How do you teach someone the horrors of feeling suicidal when they can never imagine hurting themselves?

Sometimes you can’t. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

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Leaning Spanish

A few months into the pandemic, I decided I needed to use all my time at home in a more productive way. One long-term goal of mine was to learn Spanish. Since time was no longer an issue, I downloaded Duolingo (affiliate link) and got to work.

In the first few weeks, I was sure it was impossible for me to understand Spanish. All the accents and noun genders confused me, and the changing verb patterns were more than my brain could handle.

I refused to give up, though, and as the months passed, something amazing happened. Suddenly, without me realizing it, I would hear a character on TV speak a few words in Spanish and understand it. Because I am willing to put in the time, I am learning a language. What I thought was impossible to comprehend is now making sense.

You can do the same with helping a friend understand your mental illness. Here are three keys to help you be successful.

Be Patient

It takes time to grasp a new concept, and learning about mental illness is no different. Your loved ones will need time to understand your illness. Be generous with the time you give them.

You didn’t learn to walk the first time you stood up. Give them time to grow.

Three people not understanding each other.
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Be Brief

Many of us with bipolar disorder are chronic over sharers. We may be slow to open up, but when we do, we can pour out words with the force of a tsunami.

It’s better to share things in small bites. Break your illness down into a bunch of little pieces, then when the time is right, share one of those pieces.

For example, one day you could talk about insomnia and on another about mania- induced shopping. If you offer someone just a tidbit of information, they’re more likely to come back for more.

Be Positive

The most important thing you can do to help others understand your illness is to be positive. Keep a picture in your mind of your family understanding your illness and work toward that goal. Believe it’s possible.

It will take time, but if you expect a positive outcome, you’re more likely to get it.

It’s okay if they never understand. I will never truly understand what it’s like to be pregnant. It’s not genetically possible, but I can still have empathy for my pregnant friends. I understand muscle cramps and food cravings and I experienced nausea before. I can feel for them because of the parts I understand.

Think of that when explaining mental illness to somebody else. They might not make sense of it for a long time, but if they’re willing to stick around and listen, parts of it will click.

Those people who want to put in the time are true gems. If you have friends like that, don’t give up on them. Be patient, explain your disorder to them in small bites, and stay positive. In time, they’ll get it.

Until next time, keep fighting.

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