The conversation came up at lunch. A peaceful Wednesday lunch with the sun shining through, signaling that it was going to be another great day. The conversation was going great, but then… word vomit.
“It’s all in your head,” he says.
In an attempt to play it dumb, but really just wanting an explanation, I respond, “What is?”
“Your anxiety, depression, all these ‘mental illnesses.’”
I kind of just sat and stared, my eyebrows scrunched, “Well of course it is, it’s a mental illness.”
The conversation really just stopped there as he knew he didn’t want to start that argument. At first this angered me, but I quickly remembered what I have learned through the past years: you can’t argue with someone being ignorant. I swallowed my words.
We head to the bus and sit in silence. All I could think was, “Well of course it is. It’s a mental illness. A mental illness. Meaning it’s in the head.” But I knew that no matter how many times I tried to point out the obvious, the basic meaning of an English word, “mental,” he still wouldn’t get it.
Here’s the deal.
Yes, my anxiety, my depression, my mental illnesses — they’re all in my head. Hence, why it’s called a mental illness. It’s a chemical imbalance. It’s not something you can just see.
I don’t have the physical symptoms that you can point out for me, but are you the one that needs to point them out? I’m the sick one, I know what’s going on.
If you feel like you’re having a heart attack, will I just go, “Well, your heart isn’t out of your chest. I don’t see anything wrong; you’re fine.” Are you just fine? Are you not hurt just because I can’t see it? No, you’re still hurt, you’re still suffering, and you’re still going to hurt even if I say, “You’re fine. Just get over it.” Why? Because that’s not how illnesses work. You know, I know it, science knows it, but you continue to turn a blind eye to the certain illnesses that you don’t suffer from.
But, let me give a quick scientific run-down.
Anxiety Disorders, (including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and so on), are caused by imbalances of specific neurotransmitters — you know, the things letting you function. Neurotransmitters such as GABA, serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine, and the stress hormone, cortisol, all play roles in anxiety. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a lot more than just “over thinking.”
Now to depression, a little something that affects three parts of your brain: the amygdala, the thalamus, and the hippocampus. Something that can be passed down in genes, just like heart disease or cancer. And again, back to those little things that make you function called neurotransmitters: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin all play a role in major depressive disorder.
I feel it’s important to point out that dopamine and serotonin are both responsible for happiness. So unless you don’t believe in happiness either, you’re just being ignorant to the fact that chemical and biological functions can mess up in your body — just like if you were to get paralyzed. Wow, sounds like more than just a “bad day,” huh?
Although I don’t believe I should have to relate these to physical injuries/illnesses just for you to believe that someone is truly suffering, do you believe us now? Or is science a lie? Is dopamine, aka happiness, not a real thing?
Now, I’ll check out of my sassy mood and take my research pants off. I think it’s important to realize the reality of what we go through.
The reality is, this only touches the surface. Most who suffer from depression and anxiety also suffer from other mental illnesses. And in addition, most mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, are a result of genetics, psychological, AND environmental factors.
Environmental factors, or as some call it, “the real world,” contributes to all that is already messed up in our brain. Environmental factors, the things we have to face and deal with every single day, every single minute, including, but not limited to, the words of people telling us that we’re just “making it up.”
Last night, when I was eating pancakes at a birthday party, my anxiety spiked. I sat there with a thumping heart that felt like it was going to beat out of my chest, my foot bouncing, and the urge to throw up. I just needed to lay down before I was going to pass out. Nobody even noticed, and that’s the thing.
We go through every day without people seeing our suffering, without people realizing our physical and mental aches, we just go on with the day, because more than likely, nobody will understand. It’s easy to dismiss what you don’t see.
And the worst part: if someone were to ask me why I was having anxiety, I wouldn’t be able to give them an answer. I couldn’t pinpoint a reason for it, it was just happening. I don’t have control.
As much as I wish I could say, “I can’t come to lunch today, my anxiety is too high; I just need to lay in bed and breathe,” I know people will just think I’m lazy. Whereas, if someone were to say, “Sorry, I can’t play kickball today, I broke my foot,” they’re given a liable excuse. Why? Because people can see it.
But people can’t see our suffering - it’s all internal, in our head, in those chemical imbalances, in our chest — they can’t see it, so a blind eye is turned.
Before you sluff off the words, “It’s all in your head,” understand, that yes, it is all in the head. You can’t see it, so you can’t judge it, you can’t say it’s not there. It is in the head, and that’s the worst part because society wants to just pretend it’s not there. They want to scuff a, “just forget about it. Just get over it.”
But, as with a failing liver, we can’t just snap our fingers and get over it.
Coping and dealing, and for those lucky few, recovering, with any mental illness takes work — and lots of it. You can’t just slap a cast on it. It takes therapy, medications, learning new ways of living, many years, and a lifetime of practice to make great strides.
And just like with addicts, we always have this part of us. We learn our symptoms, we learn how to cope with it, we learn how to avoid it, but we know that it will always linger, it can always come back. So, for most of us battling it, we have to live life on our tiptoes — all while society treats us with disgust.
Go ahead, tell me it’s all in my head because all I can tell you is that you’re right. Good job, you’re finally starting to scratch the surface on what mental illnesses means. It means in your head. It means a battle that I’m fighting every day that you can’t see, so I have to suffer in silence.