Life on Hard Mode: Living with a Mental Illness

I see some pretty damaged people sometimes in my line of work. Over the course of several years of teaching, I’ve moved from the public schools to working with Aboriginal students coming directly off Canadian reservations, where suicide rates are the highest in the world, the most frightening and horrific sorts of substance abuse are the norm, and even communities that number in the hundreds have multiple gangs. Then I moved into adult education in the downtown core of my city, and besides being slightly older and more ethnically diverse, my student population didn’t change much. Good, well-meaning people, with scary high incidence rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, depression, and dealing with problems that the middle class, by and large, doesn’t have to deal with.

But that’s a gross approximation, because I have a few students who have had every advantage that birth can give — stable middle-class homes, supportive parents, even decent academic ability — who have somehow ended up in the same mess as everyone else I work with. It’s no surprise when someone is born into poverty and alcoholism and follows in the footsteps of their parents. We know there’s an inter-generational cycle that is remarkably hard to break (though my students are making a real effort to do so). It’s puzzling, though, when someone has every apparent reason to be successful, but isn’t.

Not too long ago, John Scalzi wrote a piece about prejudice, entitled “Straight White Male is the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.” If life is a videogame, he explained, then having a visibly different ethnicity, gender identity, or orientation, makes everything in life harder. But if Scalzi has covered the whole spectrum of what it means to be a visible minority, that still leaves us with a myriad of invisible disadvantages that some people deal with. Like mental illness.

Anyone who’s ever spent considerable time in a hospital knows that when you don’t have your health, most everything else fades in importance. The worst I’ve had to deal with is a few days of flu, but I can extrapolate from there, and when I take the time to think about it, I’m very grateful for my general good health. But we don’t get mental illness in the same way. If you’ve never been depressed (I mean clinically depressed, not irritated or sad), never been crippled by anxiety, never felt overwhelmed by your emotions, it’s likely to not even occur to you that that happens to people.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that people haven’t heard of these things, but our bodies and brains are big bags of hormones and chemicals, and if you’ve hit the chemical jackpot, it’s pretty hard to empathize with someone who didn’t. We have healthy, stable emotions, self-confidence, the ability to weather life’s storms — or we don’t. There’s an implicit assumption, I think, that everyone experiences things, feels things, the same way that we do. We rationalize after the fact, thinking that getting over a difficult situation, or leaping over one of life’s hurdles, is simply a personal choice. But there’s an emotional substrate to everything we do that ultimately comes down to neurochemistry — not life experience, and not personal choice.

There are people I work with for whom anxiety is such a crippling affair, even very low-stress situations become impossible for them. It’s easy to say “get over it,” but that’s like telling a person in a wheelchair to get over it and walk already. There are people who become mired in depression and despair, and if you’ve never felt that way, you don’t know why they don’t just look on the bright side, maybe, or do something about their life to make it happier. But if they could do that, they wouldn’t be depressed. So many of the mentally ill end up on the street because of our ill-conceived beliefs about agency and choice.

It’s hard to get outside our own head, which is why I think mental illness is so little understood, despite awareness efforts from mental health advocates. Until I started spending day in and day out watching people attempt, without success, to change their brain chemistry by sheer force of will, I didn’t appreciate what I had. Life is easy for me because I was born with the right mix of chemicals. And not only do we ascribe a sort of guilt or laziness to those who lack such advantages, we even look down on those who proactively adjust their balance with prescription medication.

People living with a mental illness are already playing life on hard mode. We don’t need to make it harder.

Related stories:

Actually, Mentally Ill People are More Likely to Be Victims of a Crime

1 in 5 Patients With A Mental Illness Suffered Sexual Abuse

Depression: An Epidemic Among the Poverty-Stricken

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Deborah Stewart
Deborah S3 years ago

Larry W., this theta MEST theory you talk of sounds very ... scientological. Of course it does. Dianetics was written by L.Ron Hubbard, inventor of the Church of Scientology. Which makes your claim of money grubbing by psychiatrists absolutely hysterical! (Not that the thought of alien psychiatrists hypnotizing alien plebes to get them onto giant DC-9s to be brought to Earth wasn't hysterical enough.)

It's no secret that Scientology is very expensive, each completed "treatment" costs thousands of dollars, doesn't it? At the very least, we're getting into 6 FIGURES to get "Clear" or in other words "to be cured," are we not?

Strange of you to bring up the lack of proof in the traditional medical model though, Larry. Many things have been proven - reputable and scientifically acceptable tests have been done, tons of research upon research, double-blind studies ... what tests have proven that dianetics works?

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

I live with depression (which runs deeply in my family) my bio parents have a plethora of mental illness (my dad is schizophrenic, my mom suffers from severe depression, and both are bipolar) My sister is bipolar and on strong meds for depression, my brother is also extremely bipolar, but refuses his meds (he actually really needs them) I just weaned off my meds for depression due to them being unsafe for my pregnancy, and am much happier. i have good days and bad days

Kenneth L.
Kenneth L3 years ago

Beverly T.---Yes chemicals affect a person. In fact your body makes all sorts of chemicals, it's called the endocrine system. But getting high or drunk or some other effect from chemicals is NOT the same as shrinks saying 'mental illness' is caused by 'chemical imbalances' in the brain. This has never been proven. Postulated, theorized, presumed, agreed upon speculation---but not proven.

."Chemical imbalance' is a really interesting one....they invented this idea of chemical imbalance" Dr. Jon Jureidin, Psychiatrist

"...there's just no evidence for that (regarding a 'chemical imbalance in the brain') Dr. Peter Breggin, Psychiatrist for 39 yrs.

"There's no biological test for diagnosing ANY mental disorder" Dr. Colin A. Ross, Psychiatrist for 30 yrs.

Clara H.---well, just to take it out of the realm of MY opinion---:
.“There are no objective tests in Psychiatry---no X-ray, laboratory, or exam finding that says definitively that someone does or does not have a mental disorder.” Dr. Allen Frances, 46 yrs. in Psychiatry, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry

JLA---as usual trolling around after anything I say with your subtle ignorant generalities towards me. Grow up and quit being a toady.

Kenneth L.
Kenneth L3 years ago

To Deborah S. and Sandra S.: So what do you say to all the people who say THEY have been HARMED by ect? Tell them how right you are, and how good it is, and how wrong they are? You can find their testimonials on the net, just as much as yours.
I hardly think receiving electrical jolts to the brain doesn't do any damage to brain cells, lol! And most of the time muscle relaxants are given to quell any physical contortions the jolts can cause. Yeah. No harmful effects occurring there. You need to google 'harmful effects of ect'.

Deborah Stewart
Deborah S3 years ago

John W., please stay out of discussions about mental illness and treatments for mental illness because you are obviously clueless about both. Thank you. Deborah S.

Loo Samantha
Loo sam4 years ago


Victoria P.
Victoria P4 years ago

Interesting. Thanks. I feel a lot of people have undiagnosed mental illness. Some are just more high-functioning than others.

Mark R.
Mark R4 years ago

Thanks so much for this article. For someone who appears not to have experienced such problems as anxiety and depression, you seem to understand it as best as anyone possibly could without having gone through it.
One of the most surprising aspects of the early days of my own anxiety/depression disorder was being made to realise that, before it happened, I had had no idea whatsoever of how it felt. Nor could I have imagined it fully.
It's reassuring to hear someone who understands to some extent what the conditions are, as well as how they affect people. Thanks again.

Robin M.
Robin M4 years ago

sevonya m. makes an excellent point. I'm on SSI, living in an expensive city. If I save any money, I'll be over the asset cap when I get my monthly SSI. Rent is high here, and I have roommates, but my name is on the lease, so I have to collect their money and write the rent check. If I'm not careful, I can go over the cap just getting all the monthly bill money together. And if anyone wants to recommend that I move somewhere cheaper, do you know how much it costs to move long-distance? Or how much the deposit on an apartment is? If I tried to save for that, I'd be kicked off of SSI as well. It's the only option I have to stay alive, and I am completely trapped in the system. It's unbelievably frustrating.

Brian M.
Past Member 4 years ago

The neurotypicals will always fiddle away arguing with each other about what should be done while the atypicals are left to fry in the fire.