It is difficult to get every person in your life on the same page with what mental illness actually is. Most of the occasions where I have been discussing the subject with someone who didn’t understand mental illness, they did not even know how to define it. Being able to define the difference between mental illness and a personality quirk can help open the door to understanding.
All mental illnesses are bound by a truth that is applicable across the board: a mental illness is a persistent condition that negatively impacts a person’s ability to maintain their life.
That may sound like oversimplification and to an extent it is. It’s meant to be simple so normals can wrap their minds about what it means. It is one thing to have some off days and be down in the dumps. It’s quite another to be morbidly depressed for three years, avoiding interpersonal contact, losing a job, not bathing or taking care of oneself, and eating sporadically.
I always stress that there is no simple answer or cookie cutter behavior when it comes to a mental illness. It always varies from person to person – that’s why the DSM criteria is fairly vague and is meant to be used in conjunction with a trained person examining the individual’s life. It isn’t enough to just look at the DSM and go “oh I have this because I have these symptoms”.
People on both sides of the fence seem to think that is how it works. It causes a lot of problems for the unwell trying to enable the people close to them to understand what makes the difference.
The following example is one I like to use to help convey the difference.
For the period of about three years, I managed to hold a job with Wal-Mart. There was a stint for about a year that I was a cashier. I was drastically unwell for reasons that I no longer remember, but I decided to try to work anyway. The very first customers I had were two bubbly, happy women. The one woman decided to get me to “cheer up and provide good service” by insisting I smile and look at the day in a brighter way!
I grit my teeth, tried to ignore it, answer their questions promptly and get the transaction over with. And then she started to mock what I was saying in a silly drawn out voice which sent me from morbidly depressed to the upper reaches of hypomania in about half a second.
My mind was just flooded with images of picking up the canned ham on the conveyor belt and beating her face in until it was featureless and toothless. Every word that came out of her mouth pushed me closer and closer. I ended up having to signal for a manager and walk out of the store to avoid assaulting her.
Now, let’s compare that to a “quirk”. A cashier could get upset or irritated with problem customers. That’s normal. They may argue or be brusque with them. You don’t typically see a 6’5”, 350 pound man contemplating jumping a cash register to beat in someone’s face with a canned ham because his brain told him it would do far more damage faster than a hand. It was even more out of character because I have never raised a hand in anger to a woman in my life.
At that point in time, all sanity departed and was displaced by the hypomanic shrieks in my mind to level her. It was a drastic indication of Bipolar Disorder making a very negative impact on my ability to conduct business and maintain employment. Definitely not a quirk. By showing the people you are trying to communicate with the difference between a “quirk” and what you deal with, you can help them see the severity of the situation in a clearer light.
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