There are few things people seem to fear more than outward expressions of mental illness, as I am reminded almost every time discussions about mental health topics come up. It’s not just that there’s a widespread belief that people with mental illness are dangerous and frightening and evil, but that people find visible symptoms of mental illness repellent. They make people uncomfortable. People want them to stop, and will point to them as evidence that we do not belong in society.
One example that recently came to mind was self-injury and cutting, which can be seen in association with a number of mental illnesses. Writing about this subject at xoJane, I discussed the fact that when I was cutting, it was very evident and obvious, but no one ever talked to me about it. This became a subject of discussion in the comments, where people asked me what I wanted people to do in situations like that, and I said then what I would say now: Acknowledge it. Admit that it is happening and you see it. Let the person know that you are there and willing to help.
Visible symptoms of mental illness, whether they are shouting, or rocking, or self-injuring, or pacing, or any number of things, can be incredibly isolating. Because when you display them, people avoid you. They cross to the other side of the street or edge around you in the airport or avert their eyes so they don’t have to see, and so that they can say they did not see. Those symptoms may be an indicator that you are in desperate need of help, but the people around you aren’t going to offer that help, because they are afraid of you.
Some outward symptoms are sometimes referred to as ‘cries for attention’ in a very dismissive way, like if people really wanted help they would ask for it. The problem is that sometimes people want help but they don’t know what they want. Or they are afraid. Or they have been ignored so many times that they think asking will result in silence, because they’re so used to being invisible. Or they think that no one will offer the help they need, that people will sneer at them for daring to occupy space with a request for assistance. So they stay silent, and they seek deeper into wherever they are.
I love being out with fellow crazy people because we don’t tell each other to be quiet. We don’t hold each other’s arms down when we’re fussy and need to flail for a minute. We don’t pointedly ignore self-injury marks. I hate being out with people who are not crazy who tell me to lower my voice; ‘you’re shouting,’ they say. ‘It’s attracting attention.’ I hate being out with people who will compliment my scarf, look right at my scars, and not say a word. I’m reminded of all the other times people never said a word, when I was drowning inside the monster and no one offered me a hand because they were afraid.
Outward symptoms of mental illness can be scary, I get it. But mental illness can also be really scary. When you’re in a place where it is expressing outwardly, that’s sometimes a really, really scary place to be. I have been a shouter on a street corner and it is not pleasant because there is a part of you that is screaming in terror and longing for someone to come help. But you can’t say ‘help me’ because you don’t know what help looks like, you think you don’t deserve help, you’re afraid that ‘help’ might take a form that actually hurts you, so instead you shuffle through life, invisible, thinking this can’t be the only way.
Being crazy doesn’t mean you have no ability to read the people around you, no comprehension of what people are doing. You notice when people cross to the other side of the street and hug their children close and you know what it means. Just like you know what it means when your teacher sees the marks on your arm and says nothing, coughing once perhaps before pointing at something in your paper and focusing on that. As though politely ignoring what is in front of you will make it go away, back into the box it came from.
This pressure, to act sane in public, can be hugely frustrating for some people living with mental illness. It’s the pressure that contributes to demands to medicate, because it makes you ‘normal,’ even if you are comfortable in your mental illness and don’t want to medicate or are choosing to manage it in other ways. That same pressure contributes to social attitudes declaring people who ‘look’ or ‘act’ crazy to be unfit. Unfit to work, to parent, to participate in society, to vote, to have a role in conversations. If you can’t stand up at the town hall meeting and talk slowly and calmly in a neutral tone, your voice doesn’t deserve to be heard.
The funny thing about bottling up self-expression is that it can become highly explosive under pressure. The longer you front, the longer you act sane, the longer you pretend so you can ‘integrate,’ the harder it can become to manage your mental illness. And the lower your self-esteem sinks, because you’re reminded on a regular basis that you aren’t a real person, someone who deserves equal footing in society. You’re either a pretender who fakes it, or one of those scary crazy people that everyone politely pretends doesn’t exist, because confronting the reality of mental illness is too much for them.