MENTAL HEALTH A-Z: I is for Invisible Illness

With the white picket fence, perfectly tended to garden, and beautiful-yet-cosy living room, everything looks perfect when you peer in through the window. You’ve heard rumours that the people living there argue, that somebody is chronically ill, that someone is getting abused, but from the outside it looks beautiful.

With my make-up done, hair recently styled, and new clothes on, I look like I have a wonderful life. I might say I am mentally ill, I’m telling you I’m sick, but from the outside, from my plastered on smile, it looks great, I look well.

Sometimes you can hear shouting coming from next-door, sometimes through the window you can see someone crying – but still it all looks picturesque.

Sometimes you can see me falter, my absences from class, the pills on my bedside table – but I look well. I don’t look how someone with a mental illness is meant to look, do I?

The garden starts to look a bit overgrown. The paint is chipped on the fence. The curtains are always closed. It’s almost as though it’s being forgotten about –slowly transforming into a house from a home.

My hair’s unwashed, clothes are creased hanging off my angular edges. Dark circles under my eyes tell a story of nights lying awake tossing and turning. My appearance fallen to the wayside in the battle for my sanity. Do I look ill yet?

You knock on the door checking everything is okay.

You ask me if I’m alright.

They say yes.

I say yes.

You persist – offering help, cutting the lawn, having a cup of tea, bringing round food, and slowly you start to be let in.

You keep checking up on me. Understanding that I might not want to talk, or that I might not feel up to talking – I begin to trust you, you’ve shown you care, and slowly you start to be let in.

They tell you about the horrors that happen inside their house – they tell you that all they hear is screaming, different people with their own issues taking them out on each other.

I tell you about the nightmares going on inside my head – that everything I do is accompanied by the constant noise of my thoughts shouting at me, screaming. Each with their own agenda and their own malicious way of becoming part of my identity.

Part of the reason mental illness is so hard to recognise, so hard to understand, and so hard to treat is it’s invisibility. You don’t know when somebody is engaged in a constant battle with their mind to stay functional, or even to stay alive. It manifests itself in different people in such different ways.

So please, before you judge someone for cancelling plans, for being a nervous public speaker, for not always being present, just think about all the other factors that could be going on in their life.

Eating disorders, particularly anorexia, are assumed to be one of the most visible mental illnesses, associated with skeletal frames and gaunt faces, but that’s not the truth. You can suffer from anorexia and be a size 16. Just because your body may look healthy, it does not mean your mind is.

Every stereotype is only one face of the illness. We are the real faces, the contradictions, the messy people with OCD, the outgoing people with anxiety, the depressed comedians, the men with anorexia.

We are more than our illness – but just because you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t real

Emma Healey

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