Here’s How Close You Are to Being Mentally Ill

Way Closer than You Think

Mental Illness Hell

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Mental illness is still stigmatized in this country, along with taking the medications that often treat it. The main reason it is stigmatized is that most people just don’t understand it. If that’s you, I think I’ve come up with a way of explaining it that may finally help you get it, and is has to do with how close you are to being mentally ill yourself. Way closer than you might think.

Your Brain Generates Thoughts

Every organ in your body has a specific function (the ones that don’t are often considered useless), and each function produces something. Your lungs process and distribute oxygen. Your kidneys clean your blood of toxins and produce urine. Your liver also serves as a filter and produces bile. Your heart beats, producing a blood supply that keeps circulating through the body, delivering the fresh oxygen from the lungs.

Your brain, also, is an organ that produces something. Your brain produces thoughts. They are the “product.”

Just like you don’t have to do anything in order for your other organs to work, you don’t have to do anything for your brain to produce thoughts. Of course you can intentionally create and absorb  thoughts — but your brain will think whether you want to or not. It’s just what your brain does.

The thoughts your brain constantly produces create what you know as reality.

Some Thoughts Get Stuck on Repeat

Ever had a song stuck in your head? You don’t want it there, but the song keeps “playing” over and over again in your mind, sometimes until you feel you would do almost anything to get rid of it. Fortunately you have learned that if you just stick it out long enough, the brain will let it go all by itself, in the same mysterious way it picked it up in the first place.

But what if one day you got a song stuck in your head about gruesome violence, or about your spouse leaving you, or about wanting revenge, and what if it wouldn’t stop? What if, no matter what you did — even if you managed to distract yourself for a little while — it would always be there?

That’s anxiety and depression. A gruesome or tragic song that plays constantly in your head, and you are powerless to get rid of it. If you’ve ever had a song stuck in your head, or ever found yourself grieving a deep loss, you know what it’s like to not be able to make the thoughts — or the feelings they generate — go away.

 

Usually the harder we try to get rid of a thought, like our annoying song for example, the more we’re actually thinking about it. Similarly, in anxious and depressed people, every attempt to make the sad, or desperate, or lonely, or terrifying, or confusing thoughts go away only focuses attention on those thoughts, reinforcing them and driving them in more deeply.

You’ve been there yourself, maybe only for short periods of time, but you’ve been there. You know what that’s like.

See, just like people with chronic depression and anxiety, you too have a constant stream of thoughts going through your head that you did not consciously produce. (If you don’t believe me, try to completely stop thinking. You won’t even be able to do it for ten seconds.) Just like people with depression and anxiety, some of your thoughts occasionally get “stuck” in your brain and you can’t do anything to get rid of them. You’ll know you’ll have to live with it and go on about your business, that it will go away on its own.

But what if it didn’t? Instead of a line from a song, if you had scary, or dark, or sad, or confusing thoughts going through your head, and you were unable to make them go away, you’d have anxiety and/or depression. You know a little bit about what that’s like. You’ve experienced thoughts in your head  you could not control, that drove you nuts, that tormented you on some level, at least for a little while, on occasion. And that’s what it is to have anxiety and depression, only the thoughts are way worse, and it’s all the time.

That’s how close you are to being mentally ill.

There’s Nothing You Can Do

During one of your saddest or darkest times, when your thoughts were scary or sad, has somebody ever told you to cheer up, or look on the bright side? Remember how stupid that sounded and how powerless you were to stop the dark thoughts at that moment? Thank God your brain eventually dealt with that loss and those automatic thoughts disappeared on their own, huh? Whew! That was close! I’m sure you feared at the time that it would never go away. Good thing it did!

That’s life with anxiety or depression, only nothing gets rid of the dark. You can’t “cheer up” or “look on the bright side.” When people tell you these things, it rings hollow and makes no difference and you feel alone and misunderstood. And in that moment, that is what you are.

That’s how close you are to being mentally ill.

You’re Just Lucky, That’s All

What I’m saying is you just got lucky, that’s all. You’re lucky enough that the automatic thoughts you can’t shut off — the annoying songs playing in your head — only cause minor distress, because you know it will soon go away, and it’s not really painful, just annoying.

And for you, it does go away. But not because you did anything to deserve it. You just have better stuff bouncing around in  your noggin and most of the dark stuff goes away on its own.

You won a cosmic lottery.

“Just Will the Thoughts Away”

Some will object here and say, “Excuse me, I’ve been in places where I’ve had VERY dark thoughts, and I willed myself to get better. Calling it mental illness is just an excuse.”

But nope.

If looking on the bright side, or trying to be more positive, or more rational, or more calm actually worked for you — congratulations. You didn’t have clinical anxiety or depression.

Because the sign of having real, clinical anxiety or depression is precisely that you cannot will it away.

The thoughts are torturing you, and they keep coming at you, over and over again, like a dark, lonely, scary, sad song stuck in your mind on repeat. You might occasionally be able to drown it out with louder songs (other thoughts) but as soon as you let your guard down, it comes flooding back, like an old enemy.

Remember when I said your stream of automatic thoughts create your reality?

What it’s Like Being Mentally Ill

What do you imagine reality is like for a person, who — like you — has a constant stream of automatic thoughts they are unable to change, but for whom — unlike you — those thoughts just will not go away?

For many people with depression, anxiety, bipolar, and other disorders of mood, reality becomes a living hell — a nightmare from which they can never seem to fully wake up.

That’s how close you are to being mentally ill.

That’s why those who do not struggle in this way have no right to judge those who do.

I’m happy for you. Seriously. I don’t want you to fully know, understand, or relate to what I’m talking about. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

But I want you to understand enough to stop judging us.

You and Me, We’re the Same

Because you and me, we’re the same. We both have automatic thoughts rushing through our mind 24 hours a day, whether we want to or not. We both experience thoughts that are dark or scary or sad. For you, it’s once in a while, but for me, when I’m off my medication, it’s always.

For you, those thoughts were triggered by some specific situation and, as you got over that situation, your automatic thoughts began to subside and you felt better. For me, the dark thoughts need no particular reason to exist, or to play constantly in my head. They just do.

Sure, I can’t get rid of them. But when you have a song stuck in your head, you can’t get rid of it either. When your thoughts are thoughts of grief, of loss, of sorrow, or anger, you can’t just get rid  of them in a moment because someone tells you to.

Question: Does the fact that you can’t get rid of those thoughts make you fundamentally flawed, or broken, or weak? Of course not. That’s not the issue. You’re not a bad person for having those thoughts, and you’re not virtuous for not having them. They just are. Your brain generates them on its own. So does mine.

Like you, I cannot control the many thoughts that just pop into my head on their own.But unlike you, I can’t expect it to get better on its own, or when my situation changes, or by counting my blessings. These dark, scary thoughts are like a horrible song that has somehow become lodged in my head and won’t go away. When I’m off medication, that’s my reality.

See? That’s how close you are to being mentally ill. It’s such a tiny difference between us, but one that makes your reality completely different from mine or any person struggling with mood issues.

On the other hand, we’re not that far apart.

But we’re still close enough for you to understand at least a little.

 

I hope this has helped you understand.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • psybear

    Thank you, thank you, so much. My mom sent this article to me to show me she finally gets what I’ve been trying to say to her and others for years. I posted it to my Facebook account with a long post attached how God is healing my depressed and suicidal thoughts for the first time. It’s a miracle I’ve looked for since the age of twelve til fifty two.medication has had no effect and therapy has only helped so much. My brain has tortured me for most of my life, and I’ve been a Christian since the age of twenty two. Being a Christian never changed my depression, until God reached down and started the healing process this past year. Why now, and not years ago? I’ll never know, nor does it matter any more. I shared your article and my testimony, and the only way to manage and affect this type of thinking has been Gods healing touch and focusing my life on Him, and my relationship with Him. Thanks so much for putting into words what i could not. It’s an answer to prayer so that when others try to help, but it induces anger, and shame and guilt, i can again show them my Facebook wall and make them read this article again.

    • I love this, Nancy. Thanks for telling your story. I feel amazing that this has been so helpful for you and your mom.

  • Becky Phillips

    Very helpful. Thank you.