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.
I will be the first to admit that I don’t understand what it’s like to be a “normal” person, because I have never been “normal”. I do not know the difference. I do my best every day to imagine and to be empathetic towards others, but I do not understand. I don’t know.
The majority of my friends and acquaintances do not live with a mental illness, although they have been affected by it due to their proximity to me at the very least. They don’t fully “get” me. They never have, I have never expected them to, and in all likelihood they never will. That’s okay. I still love my friends very much, and I know that they love me very much.
I do expect them to do their best to understand me in the same way that I do for them, and generally they’re pretty good at making an effort to do that. They ask me questions, they allow me to explain how I’m feeling and what I might need from them. But I don’t need or want someone to tell me that they have been there unless they too carry a diagnosis. To do so is to tell me that everyone’s experience is more or less equal in the grand scheme of things, and some people just handle it better than others.
Everyone has been sad, even extremely sad, at some point in their life. Everyone has had difficult experiences to varying degrees. But not everyone has been depressed, in the most accurate sense of the term. Not everyone knows what it is like to actively wish that you were dead. To look at your life and wholeheartedly believe that no one loves you, no one is paying any attention to your existence, and your life is absolutely meaningless.
One of the reasons I think my current partner is so great is because he gets it, for real. He’s been in a lot of the same places that I have. Past boyfriends have tried very hard to understand and admitted that they couldn’t fully, and I loved them for that and I still appreciate their efforts. I do think that it is possible to have a successful relationship with another person who does not have a mental illness.
But I have to say that it really makes things a lot easier and it makes me feel less alone, not just because I have someone to share life with but because I have someone to share past experiences with. I have to do way less explaining, which means that I can spend more time focusing on the present. As he said the other day, more often than not we are on the same wavelength without even trying to be.
And if I am having a hard time with something, when he tells me things will be okay I am more likely to believe him. I give his opinion and advice more weight. Because if he’s been through horrible things and made it out onto the other side just fine then maybe I can too.
I am so lucky to have someone like that in my life now, but I don’t expect everyone to have that level of understanding. I don’t even want everyone to have that same understanding, partially because the thought that everyone on this earth has gone through life being as sad as I have is too horrible to consider, and partially because if that were the case, I would never get to learn about other experiences that I have not had.
Talking with people who do not live with a mental illness helps me to grow as a person because it gives me something to compare my own experiences to, as long as they are not criticizing or judging me. It’s true that sometimes it makes me sad to see how comparatively effortless some things are for them, but it also gives me something to aspire to and shines more light on the aspects of my experiences that are unique to me. This helps me better focus my energy and coping skills in order to improve my life as much as possible.
I’m sure that not everyone takes this attitude, but I am pretty sure that the vast majority of those with a mental illness would prefer that others don’t say things like “everyone’s been there” or embellish their own experiences in a misguided effort to relate.
The reality is that if everyone had been there, mental illness wouldn’t be a thing. No one would spend their life feeling different, alienated, or alone. Even if you have a hard time imagining or believing this – just trust me. Trust us. Trust the people in the community you claim to support.
Trust that we know our own experiences and the way that society treats our experiences best, and please don’t invalidate that.
Chelsea Ricchio is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the SPEAK OUT blog. She is also the Communications Manager for Healthy Minds Canada. She graduated from the University of Toronto in 2015 with a BA in English Literature and Book & Media Studies. She was the former president of the student group Active Minds at UofT, which hosts SPEAK OUT events on campus (from which this blog takes its name). She was diagnosed with Dysthymia and Social Anxiety. She is 23 and lives in Toronto with her cat Genie.