The Conflicting Faces of Mental Illness

Jemma sheds light on how there can be more going on than meets the eye with mental illness…

The pictures above show some of my many expressions I show on a regular basis and have done for my entire life. You may look at them and see a happy, carefree, fun loving person. I can tell you that in some pictures I was feeling those exact emotions, but in others I could not have felt more alone, miserable and completely lost.

For the past 12 years I have suffered with an eating disorder and depression. There have been many times during this period that I have felt happiness and joy and been able to have fun. I really want to challenge peoples’ perceptions of mental illness. Suffering from a mental illness does not mean that a person is constantly unhappy or unable to function and experience emotions which conflict with those associated with their illness. Suffering from depression does not mean I am constantly depressed and suffering from an eating disorder does not mean I am always focussed on food and my body.  Yes I have an eating disorder and yes I suffer from depression but I can laugh and be happy just as much as the next person. These moments of pure joy may be brief and fleeting or they may last hours, days, weeks. I believe this was one of the reasons why so few people in my life realised the emotional turmoil going on inside my head for such a long time and were so shocked when I admitted what was going on only 3 months ago.

I also want to address the difficulty of identifying mental illness in others as many, like myself, have become masters at hiding their true feelings. I can smile and appear to be having fun on the outside but on the inside I can be dealing with non-stop thoughts of self hatred and loathing, feeling isolated despite physically being surrounded by friends, family, colleagues. It has become commonplace to not talk about how we’re feeling, plaster on a smile and soldier on. For me I associated these feelings with weakness and showing them would mean admitting defeat. For these reasons it can be extremely difficult to identify someone who is suffering, especially if, like me, the eating disorder does not present with extreme weight loss.

I asked some people in my life to describe how they saw me before they knew about my illness. The responses I got were ‘strong, determined and driven’, ‘everything in your life seemed in perfect order’, ‘you seemed to be in control of all things at all times’. The truth was I could not have felt more different. On the inside I was living in a hell that my mind had created, I felt weak, hopeless and completely out of control.

I guess what I’m urging people to do is dig a little deeper, get to know the people you spend your time with. The statistics for people suffering from mental illness are extremely high so chances are you live, work with or just know someone who is suffering. Not being able to talk about my feelings for such a long time kept me trapped in my illness because I had no-one to challenge the thoughts in my head.

Since being in recovery I have learnt how invaluable it is to be authentic with people. I urge you to try being authentic with others, especially those close to you, to try not to use words such as ‘ok’ and ‘fine’ or ‘not too bad’ to describe how you’re feeling. You may be surprised at the response you get. I have found in general that the more truthful I have been about my feelings, the more real a response I get and the more connected I feel to those around me. You never know what other people are going through and by setting the example of speaking honestly you may give someone who is suffering the courage to talk about their feelings too.

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