But You Look So Normal!

I recently had a doctor’s appointment with a new doctor who seemed to be in a rush and did not look at my medical history before walking into my exam room. After the introductory banter and exam, he saw some of my scars from when I had self-harmed in the past. The doctor looked at me as if his eyes were going to pop out of his head. He asked what they were from, and I matter of factly said what happened in the past and described my mental health conditions. He said, “But you look so normal! Wait, I have to sit down.”

That’s exactly what someone who struggles with their mental health does NOT want to hear, especially from a medical professional. Is there a certain way that I am supposed to look because of my condition? Am I not supposed to look normal?

It’s Tough Enough as is

One thing that I have found the most difficult aspect of battling depression is going out and socializing. It requires a lot of effort from someone who is already exhausted from their medication regimen, in addition to fatigue being a symptom of depression. Socializing requires getting out of bed, getting dressed, and looking as put together as possible: the exact opposite of what depression tells you to do. On top of that, then you have to see people and act as if you had a regular day like everyone else and speak about the usual Jewish mother topics.

Battling a mental illness is extremely difficult in itself. It’s one of those things that other people don’t know about unless you tell them. Then you can receive a couple of different awkward reactions like the ones I’ve received over the years: “I would have never guessed, you’re always so happy!,” an uncomfortable response of “I’m sorry” with a quick topic change, or unsolicited advice such as “You should garden, I hear that helps people with depression.” This is why so many people choose to keep their mental health diagnosis to themselves; sometimes it’s the responses you get that make you feel so much worse.

Helpful Ways to Respond

I have also received some very positive responses since coming out with my mental health struggles, and instead of asking the person struggling “How can I help,” here are some simple and practical ways to actually help:

  1. Bring over an unexpected Shabbos treat for the family, such as cut up fruit, bakery items, even candy for the kids.
  2. If you have a child in the same age group or even the same class, invite them over for a playdate.
  3. Pick up a card from your nearest store. It can be a funny one or a more heartfelt one. It’s a great surprise to receive something in the mail that isn’t a bill or solicitation.
  4. Send a funny GIF or meme via text message–a smile can go a long way.
    If you are close enough with the person, offer to go out for coffee, dinner, a manicure, karaoke, a walk around the park, or anything else you may feel comfortable with.
  5. COVID-PERMITTING: Schedule a movie night in with your friend. They choose a movie and you supply snacks. Many times leaving the house can be a struggle for someone living with a mental illness.
  6. If you work with them, make them an unexpected tray of freshly baked cookies for Shabbos.

These are just a few suggestions that some people have done for me and my family that have been a huge help.

Refuat Hanefesh u’Refuat Haguf

Our communities are becoming more aware of mental illnesses and that more people battle through them than one would think. Deep down, mental illness is just like any medical chronic illness, it’s something that a person and their family has to deal with on a regular basis. Just because you may not be able to see them battling on the outside, they still are. We say in the Tefillah for Cholim (blessing for the sick): “Refuat hanefesh u’refuat haguf,” or “a healing of the soul and a healing of the body.” Healing isn’t just about the physical; it’s about the emotional healing as well. 

Yes, I may “look normal,” and that’s because I am! I’m just like everyone else. My mental illnesses don’t define who I am as a person, but they are things that I struggle with on a daily basis. Behind each person’s smile is a story that we know nothing about, and that’s OK.

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Shelli Sussman
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