I remember the first feelings of something being off inside of me.
It’s a beautiful day in Southern California, I’m somewhere in my early childhood years, likely around the age of seven or so. My five-year-old sister and I are playing with our Barbie dolls outside; today is the day that they go on a field trip to the gigantic roller coaster, otherwise known as our Very Steep Driveway.
Seemingly, the scene is perfect. In my mind, however, strange things are happening. I can’t really focus entirely on what my sister is doing or saying or even what I’m doing at the moment because I can’t get the thought of my mind that I need to apologize to my mother because earlier that morning my sister and I lightly teased her about the way she pronounces the brand name “Abercrombie.” Even though she didn’t seem to be bothered, the thought that I needed to give her an apology wouldn’t leave me no matter how hard I tried, and it was all I could think about until she got home and I sheepishly sat down with her and my sister and we both apologized.
I felt stupid. I felt so stupid because my sister seemed to feel okay about it, and that logically made sense to me. I knew that it wasn’t actually that big of a deal, but for some reason it felt like nothing would ever be okay until I talked about it with my mom.
Around the same life stage, I felt proud of a project I’d done in school, some satirical piece on a book I’d read. I showed it to my parents excitedly after school and explained why it was satirical.
After the explanation, I completely lost it mentally and became fixated on this thought that wouldn’t cease to occupy my entire mental space for at least the next few years. I felt like I shouldn’t have explained to them why the piece was satirical. They were adults and probably knew that and so I probably insulted their intelligence even though an objective witness of the situation would confidently report that my parents went back to cleaning the house, obviously not thinking about how their elementary school child had maybe insulted their intelligence by explaining her project to them.
I knew in my bones that it wasn’t healthy to let it occupy my mind to this extent. It didn’t make sense to me why it was the only thing I could think about and why it caused me so much worry. I felt embarrassed of how much I was fixated on it because I knew it wasn’t normal, so I didn’t tell my parents how I was feeling.
It absolutely tortured me. Every time I was alone with one or both of my parents, I would silently egg myself on to just tell them, with the belief that telling them would free me of the prison induced by this thought. I chickened out, every time, however.
I remember somewhere in those years making a mental promise to myself that if it was still bothering me by the time I was about to leave for college, then that’s when I’d tell them. Somewhere probably around early high school years, the thought felt less and less intrusive, which only then created space in my mind to the next thing that I’d become fixated on for an indefinite period of time.
My mind doesn’t have space to learn reactions of ketones because if I focus on my schoolwork then what if I lose track of the thing I’m supposed to worry about?
It’s my sophomore year of college, and I can’t focus in a single class. Each 50-minute session is filled with panic about the way I may have said something to someone, or something that someone said to me that might’ve not been quite right. Or if everything felt too okay in the interpersonal realm, I should probably use the 50 minutes to convince myself I needed to go home and touch the handle of my car again, because if I don’t do that one more time then one of my parents (it varied randomly) would immediately get a terminal illness and pass away.
I’m spending long days and nights in the library getting practically no school work accomplished. My mind doesn’t have space to learn reactions of ketones because if I focus on my schoolwork then what if I lose track of the thing I’m supposed to worry about?
Sometimes, to try to clear my head, I’ll walk to the bathroom. Then, I’m washing my hands and after I turn the faucet off, I need to stare at it at every angle possible to make sure that I know the water is really not flowing anymore. And after I think I have a pretty good idea that I’m okay, and I can leave now, just me turning my head adds new uncertainty and I need to turn my head back around and stare at the faucet until I’m all the way out the door.
It’s 3 a.m. and I know I need to sleep, but I don’t know when it’ll be acceptable to leave the doorway. I stare at the locked door, turning my head at every angle I deem necessary at the moment for long periods of time, run back upstairs, then check again, then repeat this ritual over and over and over again. The anxiety creeps up the stairs with me, following me into my bedroom, leaving me with a total count of sleep hours lower than my GPA at that time.
I’m now 20 years old, going into my junior year of college. I have an incredible psychiatrist. His help has made a world of difference for me, both pharmacologically and psychologically. Even with persistent thoughts, I can sit through a class and actually be able to engage with what the professor is teaching. I can finally learn in college like I’ve always wanted. I can, for the most part, be present in conversations and be okay with putting things to rest.
Empathy isn’t words. Empathy is mutual feeling; it’s listening with an open heart and mind and meeting the other at their emotional level.
However, I do still struggle with persistent symptoms every day in different forms, and it still causes me tremendous pain just like it always has. I am comfortable sharing my experiences with others, even though reflecting on them often induces painful feelings.
The most important part of my life, I believe, is human empathy. It can be easy to mistakenly interchange the concept of empathy with the concept of verbally relating to the experiences of another. While they often go together, they don’t always.
It isn’t uncommon that when I open up to others about my personal experience and feelings, I receive responses like, “Oh yeah, I get you! I can’t stand it if my lecture notes aren’t organized!” or, “That makes sense that you have OCD. Your room looked so clean the other day!” or, “We all have problems, you just need to learn to accept yourself and love yourself for who you are!” or, “I think I have OCD, too. I always feel bad when I say something rude to my parents!” Verbal expression of surface-level analogous experiences is not equivalent to empathy.
When I open up to another, I feel pain but I am sharing this part of myself because I want to deepen the relationship and I want the other person to know me better, and that means allowing them to more clearly understand me through all of my dimensions. I don’t want pity, and I don’t want them to say things to try to make me feel better about having OCD. I don’t want to hear a story that they believe is analogous to mine that to them is a funny, quirky story that they’d share both at a party for a laugh and also to me to try to relate.
The component of interpersonal exchanges that make them surface-level or genuinely empathic is the emotional place of which the other person is speaking to me from. Empathy isn’t words. Empathy is mutual feeling; it’s listening with an open heart and mind and meeting the other at their emotional level.
It often feels intuitive to say something when someone is going through something hard to save them from their pain. The truth is, the most meaningful interactions I’ve had with those close to me are those in which barely anything was said at all; rather, I felt that the person met me on my emotionally raw level and connected with me by listening, by believing me and loving me.
In a social climate both colored and plagued by memes and trendy clothing brands, it is important to analyze the often-detrimental effects of casual, trendy ideas of mental illness. While “mental-illness-focused meme accounts” can be an outlet for expression and community, there is a fine line between doing so in a way that facilitates connection and doing so in a way that can glorify/trivialize mental illness. For example, I’ve seen countless memes (particularly focused on anxiety and depression) that portray the disorders in a “quirky” and “cute” manner via use of images of attractive people, funny cartoons and vibrant colors that can influence social media users to gravitate toward the cute, surface level images of “what mental illness looks like.”
In the same way that we, the university students of this generation, are the propagators of language and how it is used, we are also the modifiers and the terminators.
Another example of this kind of glorification is the “tumblr” aesthetic that we knew too well back in the junior high days: images of pretty girls with slits on their wrists and sickening messages that romanticized these twisted, gory ideas about love and self-image.
The fashion industry plays a major role in this kind of glorification as well. One my favorites is the shirt that reads, “CDO! Just like OCD, but the letters are in the right order!” Brands such as Urban Outfitters and Brandy Melville created graphic t-shirts with sayings like, “Stressed, depressed, but well dressed” and other glorified graphics/statements romanticizing cigarettes/depression/anxiety/etc.
Our 13-year-old selves ate it right up, too! However, now that we have (presumably) grown up and are in an environment designed for research and progress, it is our responsibility to break down the roots and effects on our culture that these trivializations of mental illness have and to be aware of how we can make changes to shape a more educated and empathic community.
Expecting instantaneous change of how we as a society conceptualize and speak about mental illness on a macro level would be idealistic. In the same way that we, the university students of this generation, are the propagators of language and how it is used, we are also the modifiers and the terminators.
It may seem like a fine line that separates using these words respectfully and disrespectfully, but we have both the capability of mind and responsibility of action to think twice and assess the meaning of what we are really trying to get across. Saying things such as, “I’m so depressed because I didn’t get the grade I wanted on that test,” or, “This is so OCD of me, but I really like organizing my clothes!” or, “I can’t believe he stood you up again! What a psycho!” can come across to another person differently than the speaker intended.
While these statements may not be intended to be harmful or minimizing, the speaker may unintentionally trivialize mental illness, which can make the listener(s) feel misunderstood. It isn’t about being perfect, nor is it about bending over backwards to guarantee that no person will ever be offended by a word. It’s about spreading realistic ideas about a topic that is in need of more careful thought. It’s about knowing what we really mean before we speak and using the power of language to reshape societal conceptualization of mental illness with the goal of facilitating further connection as a human body.
Hana Simon wants to spread awareness about the reality of mental illness that cannot be understood through social media alone.