“Everyone’s Been There”: A Dangerous Myth

Let me preface this post by acknowledging a universal truth of life – everyone has gone through tough shit or will at some point in the future. Everyone has a story.

But when it comes to mental illness, not everyone’s “been there”. People – usually sweet, kind, well-meaning people who are just trying their best – love to say this as a response to someone’s experience with mental illness (often one that is directly correlated with an emotion that everyone really does experience at some point in time, such as depression or anxiety). I believe that when people say this, it is with the best intentions. They want to make the person they’re talking to feel less alone, and they want to believe that they understand.

They don’t realize that statements like this severely invalidate the experiences of a person with a mental illness. It’s not born out of malice; it’s born out of ignorance and the limitations that come with being human.

Whenever I use the word ‘ignorant’ people tend to get all up in arms, but the thing is, when I say that I am not calling out anyone in particular. We are all ignorant because we can only fully understand things which we have experienced. We can try to better ourselves by learning more about the world and other people’s experiences, but we can only do so much, and many people do not go out of their way to do this.

Taking A Tolerant Approach To Education

We talk and we talk and we talk about what needs to change in this world and the various things that we need to call people out on. But rarely do we talk about how exactly to do that.

I’d like to say that it doesn’t matter how you say something, it’s what you say, and in some cases that is true, but in this case, the “what” and the “how” are equally important. The “how” might even be more important.

Here is why – imagine that you’ve written something (it can be anything, even a text message), and someone reading it says to you, “Um, excuse me, but just so you know, semicolons are actually only supposed to be used when bla bla bla bla. I mean I don’t expect most people to know that, I’m just a huge stickler for grammar and I went to school for Creative Writing.”

Did reading that kind of piss you off? Because it pissed me off just to write it. Doesn’t whoever that person is sound like a stuck up douchebag? They sound like they’re lecturing, and not because they actually care about teaching you something, but because they want to show off the ways in which they are better than you.

Awareness Does Not = Empathy

I have a membership at a rock climbing gym, and I’m usually there at least a couple of times a week. As a result I’ve become known to most of the staff, although not always for my climbing unfortunately.

I frequently use my large collection of T-shirts from my favourite mental health organization, To Write Love On Her Arms, as climbing attire, and no one’s ever commented on them. But I guess that doesn’t mean that no one noticed them.

I made friends with one of the staff members, and one day after talking about my experiences with mental illness, he confessed to me that one of his coworkers had said something about me that was less than sensitive, long before we had become friends.

“Yo, she’s a cutter eh?” His coworker said one day, gesturing to my outfit. “She’s always wearing those shirts.”

I Am Bad At Standing Up To My Friends

Standing up to stigma around mental illness and educating people about it is literally what I do for a living, but that doesn’t mean that I know exactly what to say all the time. In fact, I usually really don’t.

Most of the people in my life are not educated enough about the mental health community to know what things are appropriate and/or correct to say and what’s not. They are the people who say that the weather is bipolar and that they’re OCD because messiness upsets them. They are the people who call others crazy without thinking. They are the people who will judge others for erratic and sometimes hurtful behaviour without wondering what that person could be going through.

But they’re still fantastic people, and they love me. I know they love me, so when they say and do those things I am not personally offended. I’ve had friends who have left me in the dust when the shit hit the fan, but no part of me thinks that my new friends would ever do that.