Monday, February 10, 2014

Word Choice and Mental Illness (TW: Suicide & Depression)

Just to be on the safe side, I'm going to put a trigger warning for suicide and depression here.

The other day, I was listening to a podcast in which the hosts were discussing a friend of theirs who had recently committed suicide.  They were discussing their own history with depression and anxiety, and I noticed that they kept using the word "suffer" - as in, "I suffer from anxiety" or "I suffer from clinical depression."  I realized that this is a pretty common word choice when dealing with mental illness.  Most people, if they are discussing either their own illnesses or that of another person, will say that the person suffers from that illness.

To a certain extent, this makes sense.  Speaking from my experience with clinical depression, generalized anxiety and panic disorders, I know that it can feel as though something is attacking you from the inside, and there isn't much you can do but suffer.  Considering how hard it can be for people with mental illness to reach out and ask for help, it definitely feels as though suffering is all a person can do.

However, we don't talk that way about physical ailments.  People don't generally "suffer" from cancer; they "fight" cancer, or they "battle" it.  I wondered why it was that we use such a passive word in "suffer" to describe mental illness, but much more active words when describing physical illness.

Perhaps it's because physical illnesses seem to have a definitive beginning and end point.  You're diagnosed, you go through treatment or have surgery, and if you've "fought" hard enough, and your doctors "battled" well enough, then you'll be cured and done with the illness.  Go team you!  Mental illness, however, doesn't really have a "beginning" or an "end".  You're diagnosed (maybe), you go through some sort of treatment (or not), still have the illness.  You may have better days, but it's always there, in the back of your mind, reminding you that you aren't "well" yet, and you may never be "well".

Or, maybe it's because it's easier for us to see physical ailments as something foreign to the body - an alien invader to be exterminated, or something that was broken that needs to be fixed.  Even though cancer, for example, can come from a cell in your own body that goes haywire, we still see it as something outside of ourselves, an adversary worth battling.  Mental illness, on the other hand, come from within.  We don't see how certain influences in our past or different circumstances in our upbringing could influence our mental health; we just see that our brains don't work properly, and there's no one to blame but ourselves.

I've had a few times where I've hit rock bottom and started to dig.  I have attempted to end my life in the past.  It's been very easy for me to see myself as suffering to the point that I just couldn't handle it anymore.  All of the times I've gotten that low, what has helped me to climb back out was getting angry.  Angry at myself, to a certain extent, but angry at the depression in particular.  I started to see my depression as an adversary - a strong one, and one that had knocked me down several times, but something I could fight.  Once I could see my illness as something I could actively fight against, I was able to convince myself to keep going.  I did get help, as well, and am on medications and in therapy.  For me, however, the first step was finding something to fight.

I absolutely realize that what works for me isn't going to work for everyone, and I'm not about to tell anyone how to talk about their own problems.  For me personally, I try like the devil to keep from suffering from my mental illnesses.  Every day, I wake up and do my best to fight them.