As I learn more about my own mental illness, I understand more about why people find this affliction difficult to understand in others.  Let me illustrate with a story.

Suppose I were expected to stand up in public to promote an enterprise or a meeting.  Many influential people whom I admire (and fear a little) are watching and listening; I want to–I NEED to–make a good impression.  However, backstage on the way to the platform, I have fallen and twisted my ankle.  I can hardly put any weight on it, and certainly cannot walk on it without excruciating pain.  So what do I do?

I walk across the platform without a limp or a grimace.  I endure the pain with a smile on my face and hope and pray I don’t fall over or pass out.  I make my presentation from behind the lectern, and I am not as energetic as I would have been otherwise, but I conduct myself and my business in a positive and professional (if not exciting) manner.  When finished, I smile and wave and make the long trip behind the curtains without letting anyone see the agony I am feeling.  When I get backstage I collapse and need to be helped to my car, into my house, and straight into bed.  I feel guilty that my audience got my best effort, but my family only gets a suffering shell of myself; so I won’t let anyone help me or make a fuss over me.  My wife is understanding and quietly provides for me and helps me from a loving distance; one of my children pouts when I can’t take him to the ball game, and complains that I always put my family last.  The sting of that attack only makes the ankle hurt worse.

If I try to get up and take the trash out, I may damage the leg even more; if I don’t, the guilt hangs around like a song I heard and can’t get out of my head.

And that’s what my mental illness is like.

I force myself to be functional in public, because I have made commitments I feel I must keep.  I am looking for work, and know I will have to put on a good front if I hope to be hired.  So I push through the pain and despair with a smile on my face and the appearance of normalcy.  When I get off the public stage, I collapse and retreat into the agony and the guilt.  No amount of prayer takes away the pain.  I push people away because I don’t want to hurt them, and I don’t want them to hurt me.  In reality, I look to the doctors and counselors to help heal my crushed spirit, but family and friends sometimes don’t understand why I won’t accept their version of help.

Mondays are the hardest days of the week, because I have used all my mental energy and discipline to be functional in church on Sunday; I have nothing left to give until my emotional batteries recharge a bit.

After months of recovery, medical treatment, therapy, and the rest, I should be better now, right? 

One more illustration:  a person with mental illness is like a flooded house.  The waters may retreat, and you may clean it up and make it pretty again; but the insulation is still wet, the mold is still growing, the wires are still being corroded, the lost items can never be replaced–and you always live with the fear that the flood waters may return. 

My ankle is not twisted, but my brain is.  And, in reality, the two are not as different as I once thought.