There are so many aspects to mental health, it’s hard to keep track of them all. I suppose it’s no different with physical health, and all the various ailments that can affect one’s body; the same is true of the mind. For example, I suffer from deep depressions and bouts of manic creativity, and if I go off my meds I lose all sense of … well, sense. My official diagnosis is bipolar type 2, but the longer I live with it, the more I wonder if it’s just a way to describe to the medical profession behaviors that otherwise are difficult to understand.
What exactly defines “well”, anyway? In the physical body, it might be determined as “free of disease”, which is laughable, since we’re all dying slowly anyway. Diseases – diagnosable, defined differences from the “normal” human body – just expedite the process. If I smoke, or drink, or eat sugar and fatty foods, am I physically well? These things lead to diseases – cancer, liver failure, diabetes or heart disease – that ultimately will kill us all. Am I well only until one of those diseases becomes evident? Cancerous cells pop up all the time, and are usually destroyed by the body’s immune system before being detectable; am I only diseased if I doctor diagnoses me? And if I never go to a doctor, am I therefore physically “well”?
The follies of wellness, I think, extend to the mind as well. This isn’t to say mental illness isn’t a real thing – it absolutely is. But the definition of what makes one “well” is at best ridiculous to consider, especially considering the social stigma against being “unwell”. We’re so bombarded across media and society with messages of stuff that will make us happy, that I think we can start to confuse happiness with wellness.
If someone who experiences auditory hallucinations, and day-to-day seems to be a completely different person, never goes to a psychiatrist, they may never be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Does that mean they don’t have it? And what if they are just as happy as someone who doesn’t have those symptoms? Are they therefore unwell at all?
It’s interesting to me to consider – especially as someone who is so often “unwell” – where the line is between well and unwell, and I think the distinction is in what society determines to be acceptable behavior. And as I write about social acceptance, I realize that my own definition of “well” may be skewed. You see, when I’m severely depressed, I become unable to function. I lie in bed all day, sleeping and wishing for an end to everything I experience.
But what do I mean by “function”? After all, I’m still existing, and to an extent I’m coping with my disease to the best of my ability to do so. If I had a stomach virus, I’d be doing exhibiting exactly the same behavior. My ability to “function” is really determined by my ability to function within the context of wider society. If I go out to a supermarket and collapse in a corner, or walk down the street with tears streaming down my face, howling incoherently at the sky, I’d probably be considered mentally “unwell”. (Who are we kidding – I’d probably be locked away.) But if I do those things in the privacy of my own home, where nobody sees it and nobody knows, is it then acceptable?
This, I believe, is the true folly of mental wellness. The idea that we have to behave a certain way in public, in society – that we have to behaviorally conform to society’s standards of “normal” – is itself one of the biggest problems with coping with mental illness. The worst part of it is that society’s “normal” is an idea that we must strive for happiness, that happiness is somehow a state of being, and if we achieve it, we have somehow succeeded in life, and are mentally “well”.
Happiness is a fleeting moment of emotion. It’s no different than sadness, or anger, or excitement. It doesn’t last – it isn’t supposed to. If we were happy all the time, we’d stop recognizing it as anything good. I think you can be mentally ill and still be happy – and you can be perfectly well, and still be sad and depressed.
The work that needs to be done is to normalize the behaviors of the mentally “unwell”; to recognize that crying in public is not shameful, and that being unable to smile for days on end isn’t a sign to avoid social contact altogether. Society’s perception of mental illness is strongly negative, because it’s hard to sell sadness. Nobody wants to admit that sometimes it’s okay to feel bad, and that negative emotions are just as valid as positive ones.
So with all that being said, you might wonder – why do I take medication for my bipolar at all, then? Why not just force society to accept me at my worst, as well as at my best? Why do I care about my behavior enough to want to change it with chemicals in my brain?
The answer is probably more complicated than it might seem, and I’ll admit that a part of it may be to do with social conditioning. I’ve been led to believe that an overwhelming abundance of negative emotions is a bad thing, and that I shouldn’t feel that way. That I needed to change how I act, and I can’t change how I act if I don’t change how I feel. But deeper than that, there’s probably a sense of insecurity – that I want people to like me. And I’ve learned that people don’t like the way I behave when I’m unmedicated. In particular, the people I care about – my wife, my child – don’t like me when I’m unmedicated. When I’m less depressed, less angry, less volatile, they like me better.
But more importantly, I like me better. There came a point – a few years ago, actually – where I realized that I didn’t like myself. I didn’t like who I was, and the way I was acting. It just felt … awful. I wanted to change who I was, to an extent, and I wanted to change how I acted, and having struggled to do so on my own for decades, I realized I needed help. And most importantly, I realized that I was emotionally damaging people I really cared about, and that felt worse than anything. I didn’t want to feel that way anymore – despite often enjoying being depressed.
I think that this is the ultimate litmus test of mental wellness: how do you feel about yourself? Forget society, and its expectations; forget what people tell you about what you “should” feel, or be; are you content with yourself? If you are – truly, truly are – then you are probably just as “well” as anyone else. But if you’re not, then I encourage you to seek support. It’s incredibly difficult to change yourself on your own, and there are people in the world whose job it is to help.
So in summary – don’t seek happiness; seek self-contentment. Don’t change yourself to suit society; change yourself to suit yourself. Don’t seek to remove depression from your life; seek to remove the damage it causes to the people you love.
After all, happiness is fleeting – but so is sadness. Life is about riding the rollercoaster all the way around, not just stopping at the top. And most of all, when that change seems impossible – when it feels like all hope is gone – reach out for help. We’re never alone in the struggle of life.
You’re not alone.