“How do you know…”

“…that you’re mentally ill?”

This might sound like a weird question but one way or another I’ve been asked it a lot of times. By people who can’t imagine that there are worse things than feeling sad. By people whose family members are ill and who are unsure whether they have “it” as well. By people who basically know that “something’s wrong” but want to hear they don’t need to see a doctor.

So how did I recognize I was ill? Today I can say that I realized it about ten years later than I could have. It only became clear when my life was perfect and I still felt awful. When I came home from the job I loved to the person I loved into the flat I loved and all I could think was “I can’t do any of this anymore.”

When I was a child I thought you were mentally ill when you jumped out of windows or saw little green men. Although I knew that my mom was depressed I didn’t actually realize that staying in your pajamas all day was a kind of illness too.
I grew older and suffered from panic attacks. All I could think during them was that I was going to lose my mother, either by her or myself dying. I saw a therapist for a few times but didn’t think of myself as ill – I just wanted the fear to go away.
Years of inexplicable breathlessness and stomach pain didn’t make me think of mental problems.
Watching myself from the outside as a teenager felt so ordinary that I didn’t even worry about it.
Cutting was kind of logical – I hated my life and felt like I had no one to talk to. No sign of illness in my eyes, only a sign that I had lots of problems (after all puberty was supposed to be tricky, right?).
Then suicidal thoughts. Every day: I can’t go on. I just want it to end. My life has no meaning at all. We’re all just stardust – why keep fighting if nobody will remember me a hundred years from now? I was kind of proud of my cynicism. I felt a hundred years old and the other people who were my age just seemed to be so amazingly naive. I was aware that other people considered suicidal thoughts a blazing red alarm sign. For me they only were a logical consequence, a sign that something about this world was wrong. I didn’t even consider that it was my mind…

The obvious problems stopped, I still was unhappy, I finally realized I was ill.
I can’t believe how I spent my whole childhood with a mentally ill parent but never recognized the signs that showed I was ill as well. Sick thoughts usually don’t come overnight. It’s a long process and you get used to it. This is why I think we all should pay more attention to our friends and family members. I know lots of people whose friends said things like “I thought something was going on.” after hearing about their depression. “So why didn’t you say something?” I want to shout!
If someone had told me that what I felt wasn’t normal it could very well have been that I would have seen a therapist ages ago.
My partner often notices I’m acting in weird ways long before I do. And as soon as he does it helps when he tells me. I guess what I want to say is that family members might feel you’re ill long before you can see it yourself. We should all talk about mental illness much more than we do, even if we don’t know how: I should have said I felt awful instead of keeping it to myself as well as people around me should have suggested that I was in need of help. After all, as difficult as it is to draw a line between “normal” bad feelings and a mental illness, none of us wants to be the person to say “I should have known!” after a friend’s suicide.

We shouldn’t let shame, stigma or politeness keep us from saying what we notice about ourselves and others if it could help to talk about it.

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