Mental Illness: Why You Don’t Understand It
“I’m not the only one!” I cried at the screen, blubbering about on a mound of pillows like a beached walrus, producing a waterworks display that nearly got me hired at Sea World. The Elephant Man, the true story of the tragically deformed Joseph Merrick, is the film that speaks to me more than any words someone could string together. Being someone who struggled with how she felt about herself, I was struck by this man’s insights despite his condition and the horrible assumptions society made about him . . . it taught me more than a textbook could spit out plainly in black bold letters. It changed me, the whole course of my life. (Here’s a link to the trailer in case you’re interested.)
Every once in a while there is that one movie, book, song, speech, gift—one moment—that really seems not only to touch your heart, but reach your soul. Where you feel like it’s opened up a new way of approaching life, or perhaps makes you feel like it understands you and how you approach the world—and you yourself. It’s often we find these cathartic experiences within a form of art, or how words lift from the paper and create art within your mind. But rarely is it purely from words alone that we feel that . . . that thing none can explain.
There is a fascinating phenomenon we have in this world—it can even be beautiful at times—but this thing that is literally beyond articulation is the catalyst for most bitter inner-frustrations, misunderstandings and catastrophes. All who use a language experience it; not a single tongue out of all the varieties is exempt from this mortal gift and/or sickness; see it how you will. It’s called the Explanatory Gap, and it’s the reason why mental illness isn’t widely understood.
A: “And it was just . . . just . . . I felt this . . . D’you get what I mean?”
B: “Uh, no. Not really. Not at all, actually.”
There is a point where, via language, we cannot put definitions to things or form explanations that feel adequate enough. The emotion, the concept, the experience seems to surpass the capacity of the very tool we try to break things down with. Not only that, but sometimes when you can put a word to it, it doesn’t mean others understand how you comprehend what you’ve explained. To give you an existential-crisis-inducing example: a couple of months back, I looked up at the sky:
Me: “Joanne . . . what colour is the sky?”
Joanne: “Umm, it’s blue, Lauren. Are you okay?”
Me: “But what is blue? Describe to me what the colour blue is. I want to know if your blue is my blue.”
Joanne: “It’s . . . aghh . . . it’s sad, I guess?”
Me *being really annoying*: “Explain sadness to me.”
Joanne: “It’s when you feel bad.”
Blue, sad, bad . . . Seeing the pattern? We chase other words in the dictionary to explain something else, and in the process tap all over a nutshell without ever getting to the nut. It means that we don’t really know if our inner-understandings of what blue is, what sadness is, are the same. She could be seeing my internal experience of the colour red as the sky’s colour for all I know. You getting me? No? That’s the point. For more info on this fascinating topic, visit the short video, Is Your Red the Same as My Red?
But in relation to mental illness, it’s the reason unaffected people cannot relate or understand (as much as they tell you they do). For example: you’re a depressed person and expressing that you feel a severe unhappiness. It’s deciphered by the unaffected person via their own definition of what unhappy means to them, based on personal experiences they’ve learnt to link to that word. If they haven’t experienced depression, they will be a thinking of a very different unhappiness to your unhappy experience.
“I understand what it’s like feeling like there’s no good in your life.” They may say, but the inner-experience of having that mindset/attitude would be entirely different to a depressed person, but there’s just no way of articulating that.
So naturally, the good old “Just Be Happy” saying is simplistically applied to the depressed by society, because the predominant experience of unhappiness is one that most were/are voluntarily able to get out of. “So why couldn’t the depressed person just shake it off? They’re just not wanting to change their mood.” No. Not the case. “Unhappiness” to the depressed is a word they use to label an involuntary psychological issue very different to your version. Every brew of the same wine is different, yet they’re all packaged under the same name.
A problem I had was the fact that I felt like my mind was held prisoner to an incomplete language, the very thing that could set me free. Recently, walking along the river with a recovered anorexic, we spent the entire time talking about food, exercise, weight, and appearance—very typical of anorexics, you may say. But at the end, we were getting quite frustrated at ourselves as we kept trying to plough, jack-hammer and wrecking-ball that stubborn nutshell to try and explain our inner-workings . . . and I finally turned to her:
Me: “You know what? This entire time, we have been sharing a stereotypical anorexic-patient discourse, but we know that none of all those things are the problem.”
Friend: “You’re right. But that’s the only thing that comes out when we speak.”
Me: “It’s like we are trying to speak English and all that’s coming out is Spanish. No wonder people don’t understand us and what we’re going through, and just think it all happens because we think we’re fat.”
So the point is? We all suffer from the Explanatory Gap in one way or another, whether it may be in trying to tell your loved one why you love them (and all that comes out is “you’re beautiful,” “You’re kind,” “You do the dishes for me”), or suffering from a psychological condition and trying to make meaning of it for other people. It’s why you, if you’re unaffected, really need to understand that you don’t understand what they’re going through. And that’s okay. It just means, with this mentality, you’ll be more tolerant and supportive of them, and you’ll recognise that what they’re battling is real, and harder than you can grasp.
I hope I finally broke into this particular nutshell and reached the walnut here.
A Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders
March 6, 2015—One of the toughest things a parent may ever have to face is being told their child has an eating disorder. Feelings of guilt can make us wonder whether we could have done things differently in the past, while the health and wellbeing of our child becomes our biggest fear for the future.
This was so, so interesting to read! What a lovely post. To me it also gives a perfect explaintion when people ask me why I can’t say how I’m feeling x
Thank-you so much Annie! I’m so glad it has resonated with you ❤ please let me know if there's ever any topic you'd like me to further cover!