Why Mental Illness Hurts More than Physical Illness

I’ve had my share of both physical and mental anguish. Well, I’ve never had a physical, diagnosed illness, but I’ve had plenty of physical pain to know what It must feel like. Given a choice, I would choose to feel plainly physically ill.

A relative was recently diagnosed with third-stage cancer and last week she started chemo. The family is worried, tehillim (prayer) groups and phone calls and meals and babysitting arrangements are being sorted. And I feel terribly guilty because as everyone else hustles and bustles, I am overwhelmed with jealousy. I would pay a million dollars to trade places with my aunt. Yes, she is in a lot of pain. The injections and the nausea and the weakness and sudden incapacitation must be awful. I really feel for her. Spending nights and days in the hospital whilst Code Blues blare and the whitewashed walls match the sterility of the doctor’s professionalism as they consult clipboards and charts and ratch up the IV. It must be so so difficult.

But I am also ill.

How My Illness is Approached

Ever since I was diagnosed, re-diagnosed and then re-diagnosed again, no one has ever sent me a get-well card. No one has ever called to check in on how I am feeling the day after treatment. No one sends vitamin juices after a grueling meeting with the doctor. No one offers me a lift to the hospital. There aren’t any pretty rugs or lamps in my room where I spend most of my life. None of my favorite drinks and snacks during an especially rough week.

There’s good reason that I don’t get the attention I really do deserve. I am only ill by some people’s standards. Mental illness doesn’t qualify as an actual malady in my family. So, I might be suffering; I might be in horrific pain; I might also be having weekly therapy treatments that I feel are as horrific and as painful as open-heart surgery without anesthetic. But the thing is I go to work. I volunteer. I cook supper. I talk on the phone. I clean and bake and function. So since I’m doing all this, I’m well! No matter that all these things take tremendous superhuman effort. That a casual phone call to an acquaintance leaves me gasping and weak. That the wedding I went to took nearly two weeks ago stole days of my sanity; yes, that’s how long a social event like that took to regain a level of emotional equilibrium.

Oh, and I have plenty of physical pain as well. The near-constant migraines, full-body aches that run my life and decide my energy levels, insomnia, nausea, and then the endless energy so that my body feels like it’s exploding with the excess.

My Invisible Illness

I experience no compassion and no help, just because I don’t wear my illness on my forehead. Just because my brain is infected, instead of my body. I wish those who claim to love me would have an appreciation of how much it takes to engineer a calm, regulated veneer. How much it takes not to spill what my thoughts really are, for it would traumatize those around me and alienate them even more. Indeed, the privacy of my pain is my saving grace, but it is also my biggest hardship in this lonely battle. I wish my family and friends, I wish the world around me would stop, accept and embrace mental illness like they do for any other sickness.

I did just that and it has helped me tremendously, allowed me to a place of graceful acceptance of the challenge bestowed upon me. Now that I embrace mental illness like physical illness, I regard my manic and depressive episodes as experiences of sickness, experiences that I am powerless over, experiences that I must pray to G-D about, as I would for a cold, pneumonia, a toothache or leukemia, G-D forbid. I did not cause my mental illness any more than I would have caused a physical one.

Written in dedication to all my sisters and brothers who identify with this post.

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