I was once asked, “What’s it like having a mental illness?” This question was asked by a very good friend of mine. This friend never experienced mental illness. He asked with sincere curiosity. He had never known anyone with mental illness (that he knew of besides me). The question was asked because he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand why I sometimes struggled. Why I struggled with what he thought was nothing to struggle about. Like getting out of bed.
There are days that I really have to push myself to get out of bed. I have to give myself a pep-talk, think about good things that could happen that day, and really convince myself that staying in bed forever is not going to help my shit mood that I’m in. Some days, getting out of bed is my biggest accomplishment.
Then there are the other days. Days where my mind is racing. I feel like I can take on the world. Sleep is not something I need anymore, I have tons of energy and I’m excited to do… EVERYTHING!!! Those days, I really have to question every decision I make simply to try to avoid possibly doing something I would end up regretting once I was more clear-headed.
And then there is the random thoughts of worthlessness and suicide that just pop into my head. I literally can have nothing, nothing bad happen. Nothing that made me upset, triggered, anxious, or even excited, elated, or happy. Just an average non-eventful day where I feel contentment. And then driving down the freeway on my way home from work, randomly I think: “I should drive my car off the side of the road and kill myself.” No particular reason why. It’s like somewhere inside me is a part that wants to die. Insidious thoughts of suicide have haunted me for as long as I can remember, even as a child.
But how could I explain this to someone who has never experienced this? How could I communicate the difficulties I face simply from being me? That I’m in constant war with myself. That I want to live but I’m also so exhausted from being hyper-vigilant of my moods and thoughts. Continuously reminding myself that no, I don’t actually want to die, I’m very happy with my life, I just have suicidal ideation.
I thought long and hard on how best to explain what it is like living with a mental illness and this is the analogy I came up with:
Every person in the world is in their own small boat. We are all sailing across the sea of life. There is no visible end or destination, we just sail along until death claims us. As we are sailing, there are storms on this sea, waves that crash into our boat, and all we have is a small bucket to use to toss the water out. These waves and water filling the boat are the struggles, challenges, and perhaps even trauma that we all experience in life, storms are situations that affect multiple people at once. And our small little bucket that we are using to try to keep our boat afloat represents our wellness tools, supports, and coping skills in life. The quality of the boat represents are resources. If you grew up in poverty, your boat may be made from rotten wood, while an upper class white male may have a boat made from lightweight carbon fiber.
So everyone is on their small single man boat, doing their best to sail in the ocean of life, with waves crashing down on us as life throws trials and tribulations our way. For those with mental illness, our boats have holes. It may be several tiny holes, one giant crack in the hull, or one small hole that doesn’t seem all that bad but it is a hole nonetheless. So while everyone else is scrambling to toss the water out of their boats from the waves, those with mental illness are trying to fix our boat while still dealing with the crashing waves. We may be lucky and be able to patch up all the holes and/or get a bigger bucket by getting help through therapy, medication, peer support, etc. Or society may fail us and our holes could get bigger, causing our boat to sink leaving us to swim until we get the help we need. Once we are swimming, we need the help of others. We need support to bring us out of the water, rest our exhausted body and mind, and build another boat for ourselves.
Keep in mind that the waves and storms could cause anyone to develop holes in their boats. Mental illness knows no boundaries. Mental illness can affect anyone! Any social class, race, religion, age, gender, culture, financial status, or sexual orientation. Sure some of us may have better boats, better resources, bigger buckets but it is possible for anyone of us to develop mental illness. And if we do, we are dealing not just with the constant crashing waves of life but also a boat with holes.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this! Did the analogy make sense? Did I totally miss the mark and you don’t agree? How would you describe having mental illness if you were asked?
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