With a mental illness, one feels vulnerable.
When you care for the physically sick, there are certain norms in place, compassion and empathy being one of them. It is easier to empathize with someone who claims to have pain in a certain part of their body, or who is sickly and frail, or who is bleeding. But with mental illness, the malady isn’t “seen” in the same way that physical illness is. This creates a different dynamic between observer and observed.
Imagine, what is the response for someone who doesn’t trust someone else (paranoia) or who is imagining impossible things (delusions) or who wants to commit suicide? Fear is a common response, as is general misunderstanding and chaos. But occasionally, people can tap right into it, and can make you realize, due to your mental illness, just how vulnerable you actually are.
When you’re mentally sick, people want to be there for you, just as they want to keep their distance, and this can be an interesting tension.
I feel vulnerable when I am mentally sick, and for many reasons. I say and do things I normally wouldn’t do, things driven by an intense passion, things driven by an intense longing, things driven by an intense desire that usually lies dormant and suppressed in normal societal circumstances. To put the emphasis on the mind, something we can’t see, can often be a strange and exhilarating experience. Because really, what is the right response, when someone says their mind hurts? What is the appropriate response to such a statement?
So, you get on medications, that are supposedly going to help, and that if you’re lucky, may even help you to be happy, and allow you to express something as good and pure as happiness.
I remember once recently when my medications were working, and I didn’t realize that I appeared happy to a friend of mine who had shown empathy for me regarding my mental illness in the past, and was aware of the amount of suffering I felt on a regular basis. And how surprised and touched he probably was when he saw me as actually “happy,” because the medications were working.
How do we define vulnerability? There are obvious examples, such as someone who appears sickly and is vulnerable in terms of how they look, but someone who is vulnerable mentally, I believe they take on a certain type of beauty that is difficult for many to appreciate, understand, or care about. The vulnerability is a kind of “gentleness of the mind,” for lack of a better phrase, to realize that it’s the mind that is targeted by those who want to help, to realize that it is how someone feels that is the emphasis. Can there be a cure for the mind?
Feelings can be strange things, different from something like sensations. Like yesterday, when I tried a new medication after a long bout of mania, and felt happy and sad at the same time. Happy because I knew I was dealing with my plight as someone who suffers mentally, from a mental illness, but also sad because I was confronting, just how much mental illness impacts my life and that I have to keep struggling with it, that I have to face it. All because this deals with an aspect of the mind, all because we are in our heads too much, people with mental illness. Because the mind is a powerful thing, and it’s easy for us to take this for granted. It’s easy for us to forget how important this is.
The vulnerability comes from feeling a certain way, from having strong emotions and ideations, from, perhaps, wanting to die. People with mental illness can be strange and otherworldly, because they just can’t function the way most people can, and so they say and do things that don’t fit in the mainstream, and they have a high possibility of becoming homeless and being even more vulnerable.
Feelings are no doubt different from sensations in that a sensation causes you to cry out in obvious pain or hold part of your body in obvious pain, but what do you do when you have a feeling? You might grab your head in a panic, but this is more symbolic than literal. Feelings are so overwhelming and pervasive, like when I yelled, “I want to die! I want to die!” over and over again, when there was nothing in my life except for stressors and mental illness to lead to this outcome.
In what way, then, do people with mental illnesses become vulnerable? In the sense that it all comes back to feeling. Feelings. A worldview, a sadness, a despair. Suicidal thoughts. How do you even quantify suicidal thoughts, or the pain that comes from that? You can’t, really, at least in my experience. You just experience the feeling, and you struggle with it, and you feel confused, and you aren’t sure what is best, or what should be best. You just feel it, you just want to die, and your mind hurts.
There is something so incredibly human about having a mental illness, and this is why people tend to detach from caring for those with a mental illness, unless they are trained or unless they are just willingly compassionate. It’s human because it’s human to feel bad, it’s human to feel sad. It’s hard, as well, but it’s part of how it works. And that is seemingly where the vulnerability comes from, from the fact that a person with a mental illness is experiencing something so incredibly human. Something that makes the person vulnerable.
This is why compassion can make a person even more vulnerable. If someone is compassionate to me when I am mentally sick, sometimes, I feel as though I am special, simply because my mind hurts, simply because my thoughts are derailing themselves and I’m experiencing mania and depression. When someone is compassionate to me in the midst of a crisis, I feel strange, I feel almost euphoric that someone cares. And this can be true with really any interaction, whether positive or negative, because you know the person is just trying to help. Even if the experience is negative, your mind is all you can see, your thoughts are all you can interpret, and that makes it difficult, it makes you wonder, why you are so special. It isn’t grandiose to use the word special, as it denotes a feeling that the mind creates, a kind of mood or atmosphere. The mind wants attention, because the mind wants to be healed. The mind wants to connect with other minds.
So much of our life centers around our thoughts and feelings and our subjective reality, which is why vulnerability in terms of mental illness is so important, so crucial. When someone is presenting with an atypical reality, one can’t help but feel puzzled but also compassionate for this bizarre reality being displayed. I think about my many dealings with those who suffered with mental illness, and how my first instinct was to relate to their strange experiences. I feel it’s the same way with me. How strange it is that there is no obvious source of pain and illness, with a mental illness, and you need medications, you need hospitalization, you need a certain level of care and compassion.
Often times I have complained that I do not feel as though I get the care I need, partially because of stigma and the harming effects of stigma. But I am compliant with my medication, and my medication makes me feel better, at least sometimes, and I’m puzzled when my medication isn’t working anymore and I need to get a med adjustment.
And what is it with this social emphasis on being “crazy,” on being “mad?” The world has a fascination with madness, and yet they don’t wish to understand how madness actually works, or so this is my feeling. And yet we are fascinated by it. And I want to do better with how I perceive my own mental illness, to not see it as an impediment, disability, or weakness, but as an important aspect in my life, the importance of being vulnerable. I suppose to remind each other that we are human and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that.
It’s special. Having a mental illness is special and unique, and we don’t need to understand it to say that it’s a powerful thing. It doesn’t make you better than others, but it does shed light on what it means to really feel.
Much of my writing centers around “feeling” itself, about the things that I feel, and this comes from having a mental illness that gives me no choice but to feel things very, very deeply, to the point to where it sometimes becomes a detriment to daily living. But that is part of the vulnerability. The disability, in other words, isn’t obvious, because we can’t know what’s going on in other people’s minds. The way in which a person hurts isn’t immediately apparent. But that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.
The past couple weeks have been enough to make me feel deeply existential. I can’t help but feel sad about how my life has gone, how I feel things so deeply. And I am shocked how medication can help me feel a little bit better, and how compassionate care under the right circumstances can make me feel less like a target and more like a victim of a detrimental illness. In other words, because we can’t understand someone’s mind because we cannot look into their mind, it makes understanding the behavior of a mentally ill person that much more important, no matter how bizarre. When you say you want to die, when you say you want to be hospitalized, when you’re thinking, overthinking, thinking and thinking some more, just trying to figure it out in your manic haze and depressed mindset: It gets complex very, very fast.
My goal here isn’t to privilege mental illness. Social structures would tell me otherwise, due to the harsh stigmas surrounding mental illness. But I am trying to make the case that mental illness provides a unique vantage point, a unique perspective, a lot of which comes from the fact that when you are mentally sick, you are vulnerable in a way that in my experience, seems to foster both the worst in people, including abuse and spite, but also a deep empathy and desire for connection. To be in the system is a strange feeling, because you’re just looking for relief, a way to feel better. You just want to feel all right. And the only ones that can promise that in our society are the mental healthcare system.
The vulnerability, then, is crucial. When you have a mental illness like schizophrenia with bipolar, and you are deep within an episode, you can’t help but be incapacitated mentally by all of your extreme and intense thoughts, all of the thoughts that you can’t understand but are guiding your behavior that others around you find puzzling.
And in all honesty, I think mental illness is beautiful for that reason. Because it helps us understand vulnerable thoughts, because it helps us understand new thoughts, ones we normally wouldn’t have come across. I am acutely sensitive when I am mentally ill, and though this isn’t always a recipe for success, it does at least open up the world around me, and I believe it challenges the perception of others, which is important. Mental illness is really the desire to think deeply, even if it is masqueraded by pain and paranoia.
If someone asked me why I have a mental illness, why mental illness exists, I wouldn’t be able to answer this question. I could argue for evolutionary and social adaptation, some crazy scientific theory. But if someone asked me, do I find my mental illness meaningful, I would say, I do, precisely because it makes me so vulnerable. I am learning through time to appreciate medication more, because it helps. I can function, I’m not a catatonic wreck on medication, drooling on the seat of a bus. And it’s medication, as well as psychotherapy, that reemphasizes the vulnerability that I feel, the vulnerability that I embody with a mental illness. No one said it would be easy: But I can at least say, it gives me a deeper understanding than I would normally have, and I can’t criticize that.