[This is not advice and I am not a mental health professional. This was more like a morning journal entry that became a blog post. Merely an amusing musing.]
It amazes me how many things I do for the sake of not feeling bad. I just woke up a few minutes ago and my usual list of thoughts and mental processes began to run automatically, and I noticed that the majority of them share the objective of making me feel as good as possible in the face of desperate sadness. In the first few moments of being awake, my mind scans every corner of my consciousness for anything that contains a promise of hope: people I may hope to love or gain the love of, work I may hope to accomplish, identities I may hope to embody, and other generalities. Quickly those thoughts become abstract and overwhelming, and I turn to immediate material comforts such as my coffee, stretching in a certain way to make me feel as alive as possible, deciding where I will sit and drink my coffee and whether it will be comfortable enough, whether I should wear a sweatshirt. Of course, these are all perfectly normal thoughts and concerns for someone to have floating down the river of their consciousness, but what is notabale is that the desperation with which I am thinking about them these days makes the metaphor more like a handful of monstrously large water molecules rolling down a groove in the otherwise dry dirt that should be a river. I am finding I emphasize and fixate on these efforts of comfort and consolation so much that I begin to feel like there is a little demanding celebrity inside me that requires constant attention and care, issuing loud and precise instructions about its whims and desires. I am less a free agent and more like the beleaguered personal assistant to the primadonna inside me.
I suppose even that is a certain kind of normal. I’ve been impressed by how difficult it becomes to discuss mental health because of the word normal. Any symptom you might list to an armchair mental health professional can be categorized as normal by some stretch of their conception of the word. “I don’t think I’m doing too well. I find I’m eating two whole sticks of butter every morning without even knowing I’m doing it.” “Oh well that’s somewhat normal. I’ve heard of people eating three or four sticks and not even remembering. The fact that you remember doing it is a sign of good mental health!” When it comes to mental health, people seem to think they are doing you a service by telling you your concern for yourself is unfounded. I’ve learned not to blame them. I think it’s probably a reflex founded on the way we approach other kinds of sickness. If a symptom can be found in the scope of good health, we feel like we are giving the person who is alarmed by the symptom a dose of good news when we inform them of it. If someone had never had a flu before and thought they were dying, we would be doing them a favor by informing them that it’s simply something that everyone goes through at some point, and they’ll be back on their feet in no time.
The problem with applying this approach to mental health is that the sufferer’s ability to know and control their own mind is exactly what is in question, so to tell them that they’ve misdiagnosed their own condition by assuring them that what they are concerned about is no concern at all is to both validate and agitate their underlying concern about the condition of their own mind. Meanwhile you state your unwillingness to treat it as a serious concern, and act as though you have done them some friendly service. The concept of normal places a burden on sufferers to convince both themselves and any allies they might confide in that a given symptom is not normal and therefore worthy of concern. This creates a dynamic where the sufferer feels desperately ignored in general, and they begin to assign value only to the mental states that lead to their receiving any real attention or concern at all. All of their healthy mental activity can seem valueless in its potential to bring them love. Meanwhile, this demand that the concept of normal has placed upon them to emphasize—and maybe even exaggerate—their unhealthy symptoms makes them unpleasant and uncomfortable to be around, which puts a burden upon all their relationships. Gradually they lose acquaintances and casual friends, and even their closer and intimate friendships become strained.
Certainly, the process is not always such a clear-cut fast track to being alone and friendless, but I think we should be aware that the process as described is the eventual result of ignoring people’s claims to be unwell. Even if you begin to feel like you are merely humoring someone who wants an undue amount of attention, and is merely fabricating these symptoms for the sake of this attention, I think it is worthwhile to give them all you can. I suppose there is no such thing as any universal blanket advice for dealing with this beyond reminding you that what people want from any relationship is love, respect, attention, and a sense that you value them, and this is not particular to people with mental health problems.