The driving a car in a snow storm analogy
You’re in a car. You’re driving down a deserted country road in the middle of a severe blizzard. You’re finding it hard to distinguish what you’re seeing because the snow is creating that “I’m flying through outer space” effect. You try to stare straight ahead without focusing on each flake but it is difficult. The windshield wipers give you brief seconds when everything appears clear but then your line of sight is clouded by the snow again. You keep looking out at the unknown in front of you, hoping you make it to your destination. Doubts keep sneaking into your thoughts. Suddenly you lose control of the car as you hit a patch of ice. The car swerves as you try to correct your path. Meanwhile your brain is rifling through the different worst case scenarios and what each one would entail.
You gain control of the car again but for how long, you’re unsure. You’re left shaken. Afraid. Then for a brief moment you remember other times you’ve been in the same situation and you were able to come out the other side unscathed, safe and with a sense of pride that you did it. You daydream about summer when you don’t have to worry about the weather every time to want to go somewhere! How carefree you feel when you don’t have to navigate with all these unexpected and unpredictable factors. Not that every drive you take in winter is worthy of a death grip, but more often than not, it is a struggle, is stressful and causes other people to worry about your safety as well.
So what does anxiety feel like?
For someone who is afflicted with the mental illness of anxiety, the above scenario is a very real experience. You feel as though you’re trapped in a moving, unpredictable vehicle. While you do have some ability to maneuver in ways you want to, there are other external (and in this case often internal) factors that prevent you from navigating smoothly. Your thoughts are often clouded by altered versions of reality. You often feel things much more intensely than you do when not battling mental illness. Things seem overwhelming to you and you begin to quickly catalogue all the possible things that are/might/could happen to you while in this state. This just creates a more taxed brain and often worsens symptoms. You either find sleep difficult because your brain will not shut off or you sleep so much that when you wake up, dealing with reality is difficult.
The summers in the above analogy refer to the periods of time when you are not in the depths of your mental affliction – when things seem clear. You cope well with responsibilities, you feel energized, feel capable of handling even the most complex challenges thrown your way and you feel on top of the world. But as those with mental illness know, sometimes those winters can be very, very long and the summers all too brief. Like weather, we cannot predict the forecast for our mental health accurately. We sometimes do not see the flash floods or the avalanches coming. All we can do is try to prepare for the aftermath when they do occur or put measures in place to counteract the disasters so they don’t have as much of an impact.
Sadly, the majority of us who deal with mental illness do so in silence. We feel unable to reach out to others and share our struggles. Why? Because society has placed such a negative stigma on mental illness.
THIS HAS TO STOP.
We need to collectively take a stand and be vocal about our stories and our experiences with mental illness so we can live our lives honestly. So we can feel a sense of community, gain access to resources and so we can create a support network among ourselves so we don’t feel alone when we’re in the dead of winter.
Why don’t we treat mental illness the same as physical illness?
If someone is diagnosed with an illness that will forever be a part of their life we instinctively reach out to them, tell them stories of others we know who have the same afflictions, offer our support in various ways and most importantly we never turn our backs on them. Can you imagine what our society would be like if we turned our backs on those who were diagnosed with cancer? I know we all know someone who was/is afflicted with this horrible disease. Our first instinct is to embrace them, comfort them, offer support and share their story with others so that the circle of support will keep growing in their time of need.
Make no mistake, I’m not comparing cancer to mental illness because they are very different. But, they are also very alike in that everyone knows someone who is afflicted at one time or another with mental illness. The sad part is you might not KNOW you know someone because they have been afraid to share that information with you. They’re afraid of being judged and afraid of being seen as a failure for allegedly not being able to cope with life’s challenges. Most of all, they are afraid of being shunned by you and others if their story were to become common knowledge.
Mental illness is a disease of the brain. Your brain is an organ of the body just as a heart, a kidney, a liver, a lung is. So why, if our brain is afflicted with a medical condition do we equate that as being the person’s fault? Why do we feel it is their responsibility to deal with things on their own, without fanfare? Why are we made to feel that we are the only ones who can fix us? That divulging this information is detrimental when in every way, owning our illness would be the key to possibly helping us through this blizzard?
We need to know someone is there to listen, without judgement
If you were driving that aforementioned car through that blinding snowstorm and came upon another person on the side of the road and their car had broken down, would you keep driving? Would you leave them standing there in this midst of this snow storm by themselves and keep on going, pretending you didn’t see them? I’m going to guess the answer you’d give would be no. Then why do we keep on driving past others when we suspect something “just isn’t right” or that they “seem off” or “not themselves”? Why do we wait until they typically have a breakdown of some sort to stop and see if they are okay or need assistance? Just because they aren’t setting off flare guns to alert us doesn’t mean we’re not seeing signs of trouble down the road. Don’t we notice when a wheel seems squeaky and the steering seems a bit off?
The really ironic thing about mental illness is that when we’re having a difficult time we tend to follow society’s lead and shy away from sharing our stories. We feel we’ll become a burden to others and others “have their own problems to deal with, they don’t need mine too”. We internalize everything, isolate ourselves from others and lose touch with people who we care about. We distance ourselves because society has told us it is our problem to deal with – much like the quarantine of a communicable disease. But the thing is, most people we know already have this disease as well. They aren’t going to catch it from you and having the support of someone who knows what you’re going through would be invaluable. But still we keep it to ourselves.
Everyone has the ability to create a supportive community
We need to work on creating an environment where we embrace being open, honest and genuine about our illness without the fear of being judged or looked down upon. The bottom line is that nobody asks to be afflicted with mental illness. We don’t walk up to the ticket booth of life and say “1 ticket for depression, please” or “1 ticket for anxiety, please” or “1 ticket for bipolar disorder, please” no more than someone walks up to a ticket booth and asks for a ticket for cancer, diabetes, heart diseases or any other medical condition.
By the same token we need to also create an environment that embraces those who share their stories with us. We need to support others when they come to us and share their stories. We need to extend to them the same kind of compassion and understanding we would if they told us they were afflicted with another disease of another organ. We need to stop using the horrific labels of “crazy”, “mental” and “psycho”. We need to stay in contact with those who share their stories with us, check in on them, ask them if they need help with anything. We can’t continue to avoid them or let them feel alone and expect that they can “snap out of it” or “deal with it” or any of the multitude of other things we say to dismiss the situation away.
The truth is we all have the ability to create a big web of support for those around us so they don’t get left by the side of the road in the height of the storm. We need to know we can reach out and trust others with our stories because isolation can’t heal with the speed that a combined effort of support can from those who care about you.
The next time you think someone is struggling. Extend your hand and heart. Listen to their story. If they’re not willing to share it, ensure them you’re there to listen and to help and that’s there’s nothing wrong about reaching out for help. If you’re struggling, don’t isolate yourself. Lean on your friends and family. They are there for you. You are not alone.