I’ve been writing about bipolar disorder and mental illness for nine years. Nine long years of pain and depression and episodes and hyperreality and desperation and description and explanation and exploration. And people still don’t get it. Even if you look at the past year – over 200 articles, there still seems to be nothing but a chasm between the mentally ill and so many of the mentally well.
And I think this is because language is insufficient to express emotional pain and turmoil. We have good words for describing physical pain: radiating, hot, throbbing, sharp, achy and so on. But when it comes to emotional pain we’re “sad.” The same word applies when you drop your ice cream cone on the ground as when you’re so depressed that you can’t get out of bed. It’s not surprising that people don’t get what we’re talking about.
Pain is a Matter of Degree
But emotional pain, like physical pain, is a matter of degree. Everyone experiences sadness – which is the problem. An average person who experiences sadness thinks they know what it is. And they do. They know sadness of a level 2. Or 4. Or maybe even 5 when a loved one dies. But they don’t know the sadness that is so big that it destroys your world.
Similarly, people can get upset and get anxious before a test or a job interview and think they know anxiety. But that isn’t the grating, jagged, writhing beast that eats you from the inside of your flesh.
People seem to think they understand severity – thinking that their pain must be the worst pain, and if they got over it then so should everyone else. No one would compare a twisted ankle to a shattered femur and expect the shattered one to “walk it off” but with emotion, that’s exactly what we do.
The Language of Emotion
Essentially, language is the problem. No one, euphemistically, says, “Gosh, I feel so cancer-ridden today,” but they will say, “I’m so depressed the [insert sports team] lost last night.” People take even the word “cancer” very seriously, as they should, but the same isn’t true for words like “depressed.”
And this isn’t anyone’s fault, exactly, it’s just language and the way we use it. Anxiety can be normal or it can be pathological. Sadness can be normal or it can be pathological. Sex drive can be normal or it can be pathological.
Unfortunately, people misunderstand all those normal emotions for the ones that a person who’s sick experiences because they’re called the same thing. And all the explaining in the world seems to run up against a brick wall in some people.
I guess all I can say is that understanding comes when the reality of what a pathological emotion does is faced. Understanding comes when you see someone not be able to get out of bed. Realization arrives when you know someone who is too anxious to leave his or her house.
And talking about these real experiences and real consequences of illness can contribute to greater understanding for all. Because the words themselves can’t set us free but using them to tell the honest and open truth just might.