It’s funny the idioms we use when we’re talking about mental illness.
The day I left work early to go see an ADD specialist for the first time, a coworker laughed at me and said, “Greg, you don’t have ADD. That stuff’s all in your head.” After I got put on stimulants to help me focus, and I often heard things like, “Aren’t you afraid that you’re just using drugs as a crutch?”
These days, I go on and off the stimulants I take for ADHD. After eight years, I’ve built up enough behavioral support structures that I can typically manage my focus without the meds. But the mood-stabilizers I take for my bipolar… that stuff I’ll take until the day I die. The suicide rate amongst people with untreated bipolar disorder is just too high.
Sometimes people will ask, “aren’t you afraid you’re going to become dependent on those meds?" It's a question they wouldn't ask if I took insulin for diabetes.
My mental illness is “all in my head” the same way that Lance Armstrong’s testicular cancer was “all in his ball.” 1 And crutches… are actually pretty useful. Crutches help a someone who’s hurt go out into the world and live their life without harming themselves further. No one ever said, “I know Joe broke his leg, but I think he’s just using that weight-bearing padded pole as a crutch.” It’s ironic that “using it as a crutch” has become a synonymous with “being lazy” as anyone who’s used crutches will tell you that it’s far easier to keep your ass on the couch.
Of course, it doesn’t make sense for a healthy person to use a crutch. Crutches are for the wounded.
And I am wounded.
That’s the crux of these sayings – that there’s nothing really wrong with you. No one criticizes you for using a crutch when they see your broken leg, but there’s a stigma around mental illness that causes us to treat it differently than anything that happens below the neck. It’s a stigma that says you should man up and try harder. A stigma that says that the doctors and researchers don’t know what they’re talking about. A stigma that says you should be ashamed for being sick. And because of this stigma, the wounded lie crippled among us, unable to get to the help that’s available, because they’ve been taught that seeking medical assistance is just another one of their many failures.
- That joke thanks to one of my favorite tweets of all time, via Lance Armstrong himself: “Golfed with @college6 today. On one tee I couldn’t find my ball. I said ‘You take my ball, College?” He replied, ‘No. Cancer did.’” ↩