You Don’t Look Sick and Other Microaggressions

Having a mental illness means fighting a war on all fronts. I wake up in the morning to fight the same hellacious demons that prevented me from sleeping the night before. And while those dogs follow along snapping at my heels, I navigate a world that is filthy with social landmines: impossible-to-detect people and situations that will inevitably blow up in my face. Some of the worst of these hidden bombshells are the well-meaning, ignorant, or otherwise unaware kind. Harvard psychologist Chester M. Pierce initially coined the term “microaggressions” to connote the insults and dismissals that non-black-Americans hurl at people of color. Later, the term came to apply to all statements of ignorance made by the majority about a minority. For those of us living with a mental illness, these statements belie an underlying dismissal by those who are neurotypical on the bases of invalidation, assumption of inferiority, fear of mental illness, shaming of mental illness, and second-class citizenry.

With the help of illustrator, Ms. Alex, I am pleased to present you with a few of my favorites. (Read: things I’m really fucking tired of hearing.) I would love to see yours in the comments!


“But you don’t look sick.”

imageAnd you don’t look like a doctor. When I hear this from people, I often want to ask them what “sick” looks like. Should I be a homeless bag-lady? Would that my my illness more legitimate? I wonder if this means I need to prove my illness to you. Like, “Here is a list of my symptoms. Is that sufficient evidence to back my story?”

“But you always seem so confident/put-together/capable.”

imageI get that you probably mean this as a compliment, so thanks. I put a lot of time and energy into making it appear as if I have my shit together. And I typically don’t let everyone in on my little secret, so I guess: ha ha, I fooled you!

“Oh, I know what you mean! I’m totally bipolar/OCD/schizo, too!”

imageNo, you’re not. You just think it’s cute to liken your non-clinical experiences of sadness and anxiety to serious mental illnesses that require treatment. But it isn’t cute. Knock it off. Appropriating serious terms for various levels of average experiences within the human condition when you don’t actually have an illness isn’t cute and it promotes a negative stigma about those of us who actually do have chronic conditions.

“I know that you’re anxious/depressed/angry about ____, but really you should just be grateful that ____.”

imageWow. You’re right. I should be grateful for the good things that are going on — but check this out: I am a complex, fully-formed human being, and I can divide my attention enough to feel both gratitude for what’s positive in my life, AND anxiety, depression, or anger about another situation at the same time. Imagine that.

“Well, I’m not a mind reader!”

imageNo, you aren’t, and I don’t expect you to be. I don’t think you should have to anticipate and fulfill my needs the very moment they arise, but it would be lovely if you could have a little more compassion for how gut-wrenchingly difficult and uncomfortable it is for me to ask for help. I would rather floss with barbed-wire.

“You really only needed to ask.”

imagePlease see the above re: BARBED WIRE. I get that to you, and most other people, asking seems like a very simple thing. But I have been trained that asking places me in a high-risk situation where neglect, rejection, or even outright humiliation are all potential outcomes. My very being shies away from any course of action that could potentially cause me harm, and in doing so, I tend to either ignore my needs or run rough-shod over others in order to get what I need without their help. I’m sorry — I know that’s shitty of me. Please try to understand: it’s about my wonky brain, it’s not about you.

“I didn’t invite you because I knew you wouldn’t be interested/would cancel.”

imageYeah, you’re probably right. Can you do me a favor, though, and ask anyway? Because I tend to cope with stress by putting my blinders on, which lands me in a rut. By the time I look up to catch my bearings, I’ve overlooked how isolated I’ve become, and I need you to interrupt me with messages of love and support. I need you to take the time to encourage me to step out of the rut and try something new. And sometimes, I need to be dragged out kicking and screaming.

“I love you, but…”

imageDo you? Do you love me? Is it a love without conditions? And I don’t mean “unconditional love”. I mean “a love without strings attached”. Because I can’t accept love or kindness that comes bound up in expectations. I am clumsy. I will trip over my good intentions and my own words. I will tangle myself up all the strings that bind me to you, and I will hang myself with them. No question. So if this is the only way you are fit to love me, please love me less.

“Wow. This is mighty selfish of you.”

I know. I know, and I feel like crap about it. Try to understand: I am tip-toeing the line between “selfish” and “self-care” while blindfolded, forty feet in the air, and without a safety net. I don’t want to burden you, or land you with the sole responsibility of maintaining our relationship. I promise, this isn’t permanent — it’s just one of my bad turns, and I will get better. When I come out of it, things will be easier for us both. But please don’t leave me behind when things get rough. I have a lot to offer in kinship with someone patient and compassionate enough to love me in spite of my faults.
Everyone is always telling me to “hang on” when my brain tries to kill me — could you hang on, too?

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16 thoughts on “You Don’t Look Sick and Other Microaggressions”

  1. Very well put. So well put I posted on facebook. However only two people liked it. One having bi-polar and an ex mental health nurse, but they both reposted. Keep on writing and maybe in time can change the stigma of having a mental illness.

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