June 8, 2012

Silhouette of person climbing a mountainI broke my arm last year and was bowled over by people’s reactions. Nearly everyone I came across asked me if I was ok, what had happened and if there was anything they could do to help.

I could hardly believe I was receiving such attention when I actually felt better than I had done in years! In stark contrast, when I was very ill with bipolar disorder and infinitely more disabled, people didn’t know and I didn’t think I should say.

Most comments I received when I broke my arm were superficial, but I didn’t need anything more. Likewise with my mood, I didn’t need support; I had that in abundance from professionals and people close to me. What I needed was acknowledgement that I was disabled and for people to adjust their expectations accordingly.

no one knew it was due to severe mental disturbances

No one expected my handwriting to be good when I couldn’t use my dominant hand. But when my attendance and performance at medical school were poor, I behaved oddly and gained half my body weight; no one knew it was due to severe mental disturbances and antipsychotic medications.

Maybe people did not notice or care but it still hurt thinking it must look like I was lazy and didn’t want to make myself a good doctor. Especially when the reality was that I was fighting with every fibre of my being to stay alive and on the course. I wished I could have put a bandage around my head and that everyone could have seen, not guessed, but known what was wrong, and have understood that under the circumstances my failures were actually successes.

I had the overwhelming sense that no one wanted to listen

I came very close to overdosing several times. Not to kill myself, just to make myself pass out in class so people would see something was wrong. I had it all planned, I even had the pills punched out loose in my bag. I didn’t do it because I didn’t want to waste people’s time and most likely they would have looked down on me even more if I had done it. And I might have accidentally killed myself. But I was desperate enough to come very close. How ridiculous! I have a voice, I can use words to say these things. But I had the overwhelming sense that no one wanted to listen.

the vast majority of people are compassionate

My experience with my broken arm showed me the vast majority of people are compassionate. Mental illnesses and many physical ones are harder to talk about and understand; but that need not stop us from being compassionate!

Next time you ask someone the question “how are you?” what are you willing to hear? Perhaps sometimes you could ask a second question based on what has been said that would invite them to say more? And when you are asked the question, is there something you wish you could say? If so I encourage you to say it: for your sake and for others who would benefit from us slowly breaking these barriers. It doesn’t require a conversation, for me one sentence would have made all the difference.

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