I have never forgotten the three little words she said to me that night. It had been a long day. We arrived back to our apartment in the wee hours of the morning after returning home from the hospital.
“Thank you for driving me to the ER. I’m sorry that you had to do that. That you had to give up your night to be there with me. But I want you to know how much I appreciate it.”
Beth was my roommate and best friend at the time. We met our freshman year of university, and decided to live together during our sophomore year. Beth was extremely confident in how she spoke to people envied her boldness. Except this time, I couldn’t believe what she said to me that night. Those three little words I will always remember no matter how much time has passed since then.
“To be frank Rachel, I’m having trouble finding empathy for you. I know you had a panic attack, but I think you’re just being dramatic. I have problems of my own you know. And frankly, you just need to get over it.”
Get over it.
I was devastated. I couldn’t just get over it. If it were as simple as that, believe me I would have done everything in my power to just “get over it”.
My sophomore year, I was diagnosed with panic disorder, a physical symptom of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). That year I found myself experiencing a panic attack almost every day. I was too restless to sleep. Insomnia and OCD thoughts consumed my mind that I slept on average 4 hours a night. I was too tired to attend classes. My friends didn’t seem to understand. I lost my appetite for food, for life in general really. All because anxiety disorder and panic disorder had become my new reality, and I at twenty years old, was trying to pick up the pieces and attempt to cope with one the most debilitating conditions while trying to earn a university degree. The task ahead of me seemed unimaginable and the obstacles were almost unbearable. The last thing I needed to hear from my friend, my support system, were these three words.
Get over it.
Words are extremely powerful. Proverbs 18:21 speaks about their power to bring life or death. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Words can speak truth into someone’s life, or falsehoods from which they may never shake.
“Sticks and stones” are indeed a universal mantra. We all, at one time or many times perhaps, have been there. We all have experienced the blunt of cutting and unhelpful words. As someone who has battled anxiety disorder and depression; however, I can assure you that the whole: “sticks and stones” mantra does not – under no circumstances – apply here. If you ever find yourself offering advice or encouragement to someone battling a mental disorder, do just that – encourage them. And trust me, “helpful words” like get over it will not resolve the problem. It will only intensify it.
People who have loved ones battling a mental illness fit into one of two categories: either they find themselves in a position where they are impatient and too frustrated to think carefully about what they should or should not say; or they are completely ignorant of the appropriate response to encourage their loved one. The kinds of unhelpful and damaging words I have heard first-hand or have heard others use are listed down below, along with an explanation as to why I believe these are not only discouraging, but could exacerbate the situation even more.
“I don’t really care”
This is self-explanatory. Expressing your apathy and lack of concern to me is completely unsupportive. Your response makes me feel hopeless, and unwilling to seek help or continue the healing process.
“You’re just being dramatic”
Let’s not be dramatic ourselves now. This is not a matter of Stephanie flirting with my boyfriend, or feeling overwhelmed about essay deadlines. Even if these were my “triggers, it is in no way your responsibility to label them as “drama”. This is my battle, a battle you are not fighting, nor know nothing about. My individual experience, no matter how confusing it may appear to you, is very real to me. Labelling my panic attack or breakdown as “drama” is insensitive and minimizes the severity of struggle. This is very severe to me, even if you don’t think so. Labelling my disorder sends the message that “Your struggle isn’t a big deal. It’s a just a matter of you being dramatic. If you weren’t so dramatic, maybe it would go away.” Don’t minimize, just empathize.
“I have problems too”
Yes, you do. And your poor communication is one with them. Let’s be real here. Everyone has their cross to bear. Let me repeat that. EVERYONE has problems, and everyone must learn to manage them in a way so it doesn’t affect their life in a negative way. But pointing this out to me doesn’t make me stop having problems. Sure, I know you are saying this to put things into perspective for me. The art of keeping things in perspective is something I need to learn to master myself. In the meantime, this kind of response leaves me feeling a sense of guilt. I now feel as if my disorder has become a burden for you because you have taken the trouble to inform me about your own problems, and you don’t know if you can handle a heavier load. To remedy this feeling of guilt, I may begin to close up to you. I hate the idea of burdening you, probably even more than having anxiety disorder. Don’t push me to the point where I don’t want to talk to you. Lack of communication halts the healing process. It’s already difficult enough being honest with you and asking for help.
“It’s all in your head”
Yes, thank you for pointing out the obvious. My anxiety originates in my mind. But my mind and body are inter-connected. “As a man thinks, so is he.” You can’t separate the mind from the body. My anxiety attacks are very real with very real physical symptoms: heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, trouble breathing, dizziness, fatigue, and headaches. If you believe that stress can deprive me of sleep and give me headaches, it’s not difficult to understand that anxiety affects my body in a physical way.
“Just suck it up”
This is the antithesis of seeking treatment from anxiety disorder. To overcome anxiety, I go to therapy and talk about my problems to a complete stranger. I go to therapy for me, but it does not give me that buzz like after drinking a caramel macchiato or that thrill after getting a good deal on summer sandals. This is mentally and physically draining, typically resulting in me leaving the office with puffy eyes, and smeared mascara. You would think I just had a fight with my boyfriend.
“Sucking it up” would be the opposite of this. If I “sucked it up” whenever I had a panic attack or experienced anxiety, I would have no reason to go to therapy. It would simply not speak to ANYONE. I would close off entirely from the world. Furthermore, most people who struggle with anxiety have “sucked it up” for quite some time. The reason they are in therapy or need to talk about it with their loved ones, is because they have “sucked it up” for too long. And guess what? “Sucking it up” doesn’t work.
Words have the power to be life altering. Words can re-traumatize and minimize the nervous system further delaying the body’s natural healing process which can cause further leading to further injury. Choose your words wisely. You never know how inspirational or damaging your words are to someone. I have never forgotten that night three years ago. Those three words left me feeling as small as humanly possible, more than I ever thought possible. Instead of holding a grudge however and writing a post bashing an old roommate; I want to write to you – the loved ones of people battling a mental illness – and encourage you that I understand the pressure you are under. You feel frustrated that I don’t put things into perspective. You are impatient because it seems like one panic attacks sets back a week’s worth of progress. You are tired because the number of times I have needed you is starting to wear on you. But you love me. You care about my comfort. Despite the imperfections, you know my mind is beautiful and capable of producing beautiful thoughts.
“Be careful with your words, once they are said, they can be only forgiven not forgotten”