Stop Telling Me Mental Illness is the Same as Physical Illness
I was lazily scrolling through Instagram when one post caught my eye. A picture of a bright red poster stuck on the side of an electrical power box - and a message scrawled on it: “A mental health problem can be as debilitating as breaking your leg”.
It came from the account @Notestostrangers, and pretty typical of what they post. Messages on brightly coloured paper, hidden in unexpected places around cities for passing eyes - and filled with statements that feel disarmingly personal. This wasn’t that significant in the tone of what it said, and comparing mental illness to physical injury isn’t new either. Especially the well-worn comparison of broken legs.
So maybe it was the combination of the two that made it really linger with me. The unexpected jarring of seeing something that really related to me in a familiar place. Because I have the dubious honour of having experienced all of the above. A broken leg and mental health problems - in the form of anxiety and depression. And during one particularly low point in 2016, both at the same time.
The first time I recognised my problems with depression was 15 years ago. So it wasn’t my first time in this black hole. At the start of 2016 I fell back into a depression that had been brewing for some time. It was the lowest I’d felt in years. I remember the energy it took to get out of bed each morning, days not being able to move from the pain of it all. Standing in the shower, letting the warm water run over my head, realising this, right now, was the worst, most hopeless I’d ever felt - and finding a strange comfort in the starkness of it.
In the past, my physical health had helped my mental health. I felt safe because my body was strong, it was able. It could move me, transport me, when my brain was in quicksand.
When a few months later I broke my ankle, I felt like my body had let me down as well as my mind. It was devastating. It happened in a ridiculously unfortunate situation which I’d always seen as completely separate, but looking back, was maybe my physical self having a cry for help.
But however unexpected and traumatic my physical injury was - and as much as I struggled daily with the isolation of being physically immobile, the feelings of disappointment, frustration and anger, and having to rely on others for the most basic tasks - living with mental illness is so much more complex and challenging.
The shame is so hard to escape. It’s the only disease that tells you you deserve it, that no one cares and nothing will help. The impossibility of separating how depression makes you feel, from your sense of who you are - it tells you it’s not just a part of you, it makes you think it is you. This time I’d tried to reach out and let people close to me know. But for people with no direct experience of depression, it so difficult to understand. To know what to say. If or how to help. In a way, I hope they never have to. Making myself vulnerable to other people only felt worse. For people less close to me - acquaintances, friends at work, my boss - I couldn’t even imagine how to tell them. The risk they’d see me differently - inadequate and unable to cope. Maybe they would believe the terrible things I told myself too.
But physical injury and illness is different. When I broke my ankle, I couldn’t have anticipated the way people around me would reach out and show me they cared. Whether it was a visit, bunch of flowers, even just a funny text. I had a pain I could talk about, that I didn’t feel was shameful or my fault. An injury that was easy to understand, and had a set recovery period and the promise of an end date.
I could never have expected it, and I’d never have asked for it, but breaking my leg helped me deal with my depression. It let me accept the love of the people close to me. Some relationships were more irreparably damaged, more than my bones - but others became stronger. And my sense of myself, my needs and resilience did too. I couldn’t ask for help when my mental health failed, but when my physical health did, I didn’t need to. The people who loved me were there. It was natural and instinctive, and just knowing that love and support is present - even when my outside had healed - has helped me on the inside more than I’d ever imagined.
Breaking my leg took away my independence, my physical mobility, my ability to use my body for a release from my mind. It should have made my mental illness worse. Can a mental health problem can be as debilitating as breaking your leg? In my experience, it’s so much harder to live with and to overcome. But strangely, the two together could offer me a route to come to terms with both.
Why we feel shame and how to let it go
Depression: symptoms and when to ask for help
It's time to detach shame from depression
Anxiety: when does normal emotion become a problem?
Depressing instead of depression