We don’t live in a world that understands each other, and as modern humans we don’t seek to. While we certainly almost all possess enough empathy to have a passing interest in those with (let’s just keep it simple) problems, we shirk the complexity of mental illness as if it would thrust us into the universe of the Uncanny Valley in Real Life.
The human brain is the most complicated part of our bodies—it, in a fashion pretty much unknown to even the most brilliant of us, is the catalyst for our entire being. Every observation, memory, reaction, dream—all manufactured by the brain. Pretty big deal, huh? With that, almost ironically it is the most fragile organ in the human body. Not just physically (you’d rather break your ankle than cause the same level of harm to your brain, trust me) but in the ontological sense—the fragile nature of our entire being. And it is fragile, for all of us.
Yet we treat that which has gone wrong in someone’s brain much different than if something has gone wrong elsewhere in there body. We sign someone’s arm cast “get well soon” because we can make perfect sense of a broken arm. We even go as far as fetishizing conditions that sort of make sense, but not fully, like cancer. And to bring it down to the simplest of issues—we’re all pretty cool with people having a bout of the common cold.
We rally around people with these ailments. We accept them, most likely because we understand they will either get better or—to put it bluntly—they spell the end of life we all know we’re going to have to face.
However, when it comes to mental illness (like my OCD), the hesitation to dive into the ins and outs of the life of someone afflicted with such is omnipresent. I know this, I have this, and I am keenly aware of how people approach my conditions at an arm’s length. A very long arm’s length.
Let’s talk real life scenarios: I may be forced, by my brain, to take weeks off of work because I literally cannot get out of bed because of anxiety about the terribly put-together world around me. I cannot face it, and I have no choice in this matter. Well, I do somewhat. I can fake it, and I do many times. But I am not as productive as you think I am, I have successfully put up a façade! Go me! Or I don’t succeed with my façade and I get fired. Imagine that scenario with someone with cancer?
Entertainment and the media don’t help much. Those with mental illnesses are sectioned off into a box (that you, the viewer need not relate to), separate from the backdrop of normal society (that’s where they’ like you to relate). They are often the Bad Guys when their brains are turned inward acting out on such symptoms (and they are just symptoms) like megalomania, aloofness, and even into the sociopathic. Or, still remaining in the aforementioned box, they are shown with symptoms portraying them as The Good Guy You Can’t Reach: with gifted minds but uncanny social blinders on. They can be lovable, interesting… but they are clearly not part of your society. They are (we are) in the black, you are safely in the white.
Thus I’d like you to think about mental illness as a scale. It is a multi-dimensional scale, because of its myriad forms—but let’s leave that complexity out of it and think of it as a simple scale from intense mental illness (black) to pretty well put together (white). Yeah, in-between there’s the grey. Obviously it seems I’m trying to tell you that you fit somewhere on this scale. No. Erase the whole “pretty well put together” part and think of it as a spectrum of colors. THAT is more apt, because in reality you most likely have forms of what we call “mental illness” just by the fact that your brain operates differently than any other person’s.
It’s no different than me and my OCD and extreme anxiety. I think differently than you do. I must, no two brains are alike. We’re all flawed mentally. Some of us are just categorized as outsiders because our flaws go against the grain that all of humanity has formed as the normal flow of life. Most people’s flaws work within this flow. But, again, we are all still flawed just the same.
Back to the spectrum, still thinking figuratively, but with a little more of the literal: The peaks of some peoples’ flaws are represented by colors most people see as somewhere between common and beautiful. And others, like myself, are represented by colors that are off-putting to ugly.
Now, my OCD in particular. My OCD makes me seem like a lot of things, because the spectrum I painted above is not exactly how people see life. They like boxes of very standard colors. Characteristics. I come off as selfish, as someone who can only have things his way, and unable to cope with the way others work and disliking those people in the process. I am the Bad Guy, in a box, separate from the backdrop of normal society.
My brain has created a pariah.
But it turns out inside I am actually quite selfless. I actually think very deliberately about how I affect the world and its people around me. I just cannot stop certain ways of thinking, because I am human and need to seek comfort (just like you.) But unlike you, I find comfort in very odd things. And these odd, complex things, when not looked at for their complexity, come off as simple bad characteristics of a person.
Am I making excuses? I would be if I could control myself. And that is where we get to the crux of mental illness and why we are so hesitant to embrace those with it—they cannot control things that seem very simple for others to control. Because these things are within the physical mind. Being in that space, as compared to the physical arm or physical lung, problems like I have cause ripples in areas concentrated around the ideas of all of existence. Because that is what the brain does, as compared to other parts of the body—it defines existence.
That is to say, someone with a broken arm isn’t going to affect you as much as someone who must follow very specific mental patterns and rituals. Because the latter breaches a wall of ontology.
Me being me disturbs you. (One must note, and not in an evil way, but often you being you disturbs me!)
Mental Illness (like my OCD) is really just a flaw or break in a physical part of the body. It is simple to say that, it is simple for you to read that—but it is fucking hard as hell to accept that. But I’ve come to demand that acceptance without having to fake it like said flaw or break is not there. And in a well constructed society, we should be able to accept mental illness as no different than any other physical ailment.
Why? Because you and everyone else DO have the capacity to care for people like me (or people who are worse than me.) You already have the capacity to care for people with broken arms and cancer. It really is no different. So do that.