Mentally Ill In The First World

I’d like to write a little rant about being sick in the head, and my experience of it so far. It’s not fun, and it’s not all that funny.

I’m writing this for the anxious, who find themselves paralyzed in ways that no one understands; for the depressed, who shrink further and further into themselves, until sometimes they disappear; for those with disordered relationships with reality, who live in the same physical world, but with vastly different perceptions. I’m writing for the soul-hurt, marginalized, stigmatized sufferers, forced to travel alongside everyone else, but burdened with invisible illness.

I’m Ian Harvey, and I have anxiety.


More anxiety than is normal. Much more. I know that it doesn’t look like it, but what exactly should it look like? I know I don’t act like it (usually), but I’m excellent at hiding abnormal behaviors. Hell, we all are. We hide and we hide, we tell white lies to ourselves and others, all for the sake of passing as normal. When you see us act out or break down, that’s because we couldn’t pass any more.

Speaking for myself, I never mean for it to get to that point. Sure, I’ll let people know about my “anxiety problem,” but I’ll be damned if I’ll let my extreme discomfort show on my face when I meet people, or if I’ll allow myself to look panicked when I’m doing something that my brain wants me to freak out over. You may notice me looking glum, or angry, or like I could use a hug. Those are the days when life is so bad that I’d prefer to be in bed or maybe in a mental ward so I can finally get some fucking rest, and I swear to God that I feel like my face is neutral.

I could tell you. I could let it show on my face. I could cry at work, in my boss’s office, or in front of my students and clients, but what would that do, exactly? No one’s going to subsidize your paycheck because you had to force yourself to show up. They don’t let you work 5 hours instead of 8, even if that’s all you feel mentally capable of. You show up, you deal, and you only get to fully explore your suffering once you’re off the clock.

There’s no medal for acting normal with an abnormal brain, though I’d love a gold one with “Puts On a Good Front” emblazoned across the face. Typically, there’s only punishment when you fail to do so.  Having a week where your depression’s so bad that you feel like your brain has the flu, and all you want is a few days in bed? Good luck paying rent without that week’s pay, and good luck keeping your job afterward (unless you can lie your way through). There is no rest for us, except when our brains allow it.

“We all get depressed sometimes”

A little story for those in the audience who might feel like I’m overstating my case. We all get depressed. We all get anxious. Yes, this is true. There was even a time when I thought my particular brand of anxiety was… relateable. Like people who “worry a lot” might be experiencing something like my psychic stew.

A woman I worked with, years ago, was telling me about her problems. Some obsessions were bogging her down and making her life harder, and I thought I had found a fellow sufferer. You see, I’ve got obsessive-compulsive disorder, a quirky little manifestation of anxiety that involves intrusive thoughts and rituals. I’m sure I’ll tell you more about it later.

I lent her a book that had been helpful to me, full of examples of people with obsessions and techniques for dealing with them. The next time I saw her, she said (and I quote), “I’ve got some problems, but those people are crazy!”

I was crestfallen. I was one of those people. I am one of those people. Also, she never returned my book.

First World Problems

I hate complaining when I’ve got things so good, and I hate feeling like I can’t complain. Like I don’t have the right. Like I’m being a whiny little shit, woe-is-meing while somewhere a family freezes and starves simultaneously. One of them is also, improbably, on fire.

I mean, how can I complain? I’m white, I’m a dude, I have a reliable safety net in the form of a supportive family, and I was born in the United States. How great do I have it? The only way I could have more privilege would be if my last name were Hilton, or Bush, or Yankovic.

I hate to say it, but that’s frustrating in and of itself. I should be happy. It’s incredible that I’m typing this on a decent computer, in a decent apartment paid for by my decent job, and still I complain. How wretched of me, how ungrateful. I feel guilt over it, and still I suffer.

Mental Illness and Self-Stigma

I’m writing this for myself, too, as you may have guessed. Every now and then I need to remind myself of the following:

If you deserved to feel this bad, it wouldn’t be a mental disorder, now would it?

Sure I’ve got everything going for me, but that doesn’t make the anxiety/depression any less painful, or any less disruptive. My suffering exists, despite my nice surroundings. I don’t deserve this pain, I haven’t earned it, and yet there it remains, like a cat turd in the corner that everyone pretends not to notice as they pass.

Being depressed and having “so much going for you” is still depression, and it can give the whole experience a certain annoying irony. My pain is valid, and I’m only making it worse by constantly castigating myself for being weak.

That phenomenon is something called self-stigma, by the way, where we take unfair cultural labels and apply them to ourselves. It’s stupid, and we don’t need the extra helping of shame. We’re hurting, and we deserve support, we deserve help, and we deserve some self-directed kindness.

One Last Thing

I’m going to feel better soon, by the way. Not fully better, but the anxiety and depression always ebb and flow. Just as surely as I sink into the depths of despair, I come back to a place where I feel pretty good. Some time has to pass, and it truly sucks while I’m laid low, but it’s as reliable as the tides. You might find that your life follows the same pattern, and it might help to have a bit of faith that, just like before, things get less sucky after a while.

Oh, and I’m gonna go see if my doc wants to put me on new meds. I hate not being able to do massage because of a fresh crop of social anxiety, and damn I’ve lost a lot of money because of it. If you’re depressed or anxious a lot, please go see a psychiatrist.

In the comments, let me know if you identify with what I’ve said here. What would you like to say to fellow sufferers?

Thanks for letting me rant.


41 thoughts on “Mentally Ill In The First World

  1. I truly understand what you convey in this piece – so open and honest – and REAL. I have the same issues but unfortunately I also have a spouse who shames me for feeling so bad even though I also have so much good into life. That triples the pain. Thank you for writing this and I hope you feel better soon.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that. 🙁 My partner just… doesn’t know how to deal with it, and that can be hard enough. I just want to tell you you deserve understanding and care, no matter how lucky you are in other ways.

    2. Thank you, Shiela. It sucks when the people around you aren’t supportive; now, not only do you have depression/anxiety, you feel isolated. You feel like you have to hide even more than usual.

      If you’re currently in counseling (if you’re not, it’s nice!), consider talking to your therapist about bringing your hubby in for a few sessions. There are likely some things you’d like to say, and that he’d like to say, that could use a safe environment.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I relate to every.single.word you wrote. It’s rare to read a good description of what people like us experience – this post nails it. I hope you (and all us struggling right now) feel better soon.

    1. Thanks, Brenda! I like the word “struggle” for this, by the way. It certainly fits in with all of the other struggles of life (self-discovery, aging, social stuff, money, death and dying). There could be a post in there…

  3. It’s like you reached into the clusterfuck inside my head and pulled all the swirling emotions into a line that makes perfect sense. “Self-stigma”… I like having a label to paste onto the compulsion. Largely thanks to your blog making me feel like I might not need to be my own worst enemy, I’m actually considering getting (cover your ears) help (okay, you can uncover) also. Sometimes the crazy level of control it takes to hide gets exhausting. Maybe it doesn’t have to be? I don’t know. All I know is that I hope you get back into a good place soon. It doesn’t suit you for all that goodness to be hidden. Cheers to the ebb and flow! Take care of you.

    1. Excellent, April! I hope you do talk to someone trained in talking about this stuff. It’s incredibly freeing to take something that has seemed so shameful for our whole lives, something that we’ve hidden, and realize that this person in front of us understands. Not only that, she/he has heard it all, and they’ve got a pretty good idea of where to proceed from here.

      Thank you for the kindness! May we both kick more and more ass as time passes.

    2. Hi April – I hope you don’t mind an internet stranger poking her nose in. I just wanted to say “YAY!” that you’re a step closer to seeking help. I fought to keep my head above water (yes, hiding it takes ALL of our energy) for most of my adult life. I finally couldn’t do it anymore and sought help a few years ago. And it saved my life. Please, please do it!

  4. Dude, you nailed it. I’ve recently taken to writing about my experiences as well. I’m not sure it’s helping me, but, I hope it helps others, in the same way your writing has helped me.

    btw, thank you in particular for the First World section. I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to articulate my struggles with “having much” but being “depressed”. First World is the perfect perspective.

    I wish you peace and the understanding of those around you.

    1. Thank you, Bobby! It took me a long time to figure out why my depression and anxiety came with a sense of shame… and yes, it’s the fact that I don’t “deserve” sadness. It took me even longer to realize how backward that was.

      Cheers on writing about your struggle, I look forward to checking out your work!

  5. Love the article, it expresses very well how I feel on a daily basis. Would love to give copies to my friends but I’m not allowed to be around them unless I’m Mr. Happy, Fun guy. Yeah, really.

    1. Ugh, I’ve been there. This is why we hide, because it’s not socially acceptable to feel bad. People are afraid they’ll catch it, or something. Thanks for commenting, and here’s to us getting through this.

  6. You’ve given me an experience I’ve never had before..crying while reading an article. Don’t worry, it was the good kind, plus some sniffled laughs thrown in. You, sir, are something out of this world. I mean that in the best way possible.

    Clarity can only come after wandering in the depths of darkness called despair. Even then, clarity is not real, for it is riddled with fear of the darkness once overcome.
    Making the first move, lean in to touch the lips of despair with yours and find love for imperfection. Turn away and be dragged further down the spiral in self-critical embrace.

    Flaws can create strife as well as affection. Thank you for sharing yours.

  7. I spent five years in marriage counseling and learned only two things: 1. the only person whose actions you can control are your own, and 2. sometimes you have to learn to forgive yourself – and I still got divorced! A very smart person taught me, “it’s just life and you just have to live it.” That has helped me more than anything. When I’m up, I have learned to enjoy it; when down to remember that it will go back up. And I won’t give up. You have a right to be who you are, and the fact that you share to help others is a good thing. That next best thing that enlightens your life and lifts your spirits is just waiting around the corner, you just have to get there and wait for it.

  8. Your best yet, Ian – this has to be THE most insightful, awesome, and at times spewingly funny posts you have ever written and I love it (AND you) so much! ~ Love, Mum <3 PS I'm happy you're feeling better today… hopefully this is the uptick that has been hiding just around the corner for a bit now; I'll bet it IS! xo

  9. I really appreciated this article. What intelligent insight on these problems, (that I also deal with) from such a young man! You are correct, we have to put on our happy face and hide our true feelings but on the right kind of antidepressants and/or anti anxiety meds, I feel it is easier to “fake it”…as they say “fake it till you make it”…God bless you and I think it is wonderful that some of us understand each other.

    1. I really do feel like following a path of mutual understanding is the surest way out of this forest of isolation we find ourselves in. As long as we sufferers keep talking, and as long as we can find things in common with those not burdened by mental illness, I think things can get easier. Thank you so much for the kind words!

  10. I’ve got a big BAH HUMBUG for your coworker and her total lack of thinking that shit through. *judging* And what internet support and caring I can give. *hugs if you want them*

    “We all get [insert emotion that shares a name with a disorder] sometimes” is my bane. I hate that despite internet and to-friendly-ears rants that I always ending up shutting up when talking to people like that. I just want to yell at them “no shit: the difference is when it impedes your ability to function; you know, the definition of a disorder??” Hmph. And OCD is one of the worst for that bullshit.

    Anyway, another great post. And kind of randomly, I like both what you say, how you say it, but also the layout and the way you present your writing is lovely. I can be very picky about that.

    1. I do want the hugs! I want all the hugs! And you nailed it; if you feel shitty but still have your activities of daily living running smoothly, that ain’t a disorder bro.

      I appreciate the feedback on how I’m delivering the content, by the way. I think it looks and flows well, but it could be unreadable garbage for all I know. Thanks for the kind words, I hope to see you around here!

  11. Oh geez – I feel so supported lol. Brenda, I don’t mind at all! It was very sweet of you to take the time to share your success story, and it makes me feel less train wreck-ish 🙂 I’m glad it worked for you! My appointment’s on Thusday, so we’ll see…

  12. Wow, this was lovely. 🙂 I’m in school to become an LMT, and I also suffer from Anxiety and some PTSD. In fact, one of the major reasons I got into massage was because *receiving* massage has been so valuable for me in terms of managing my mental health stuff, I wanted to be able to share that with other folks who “struggle with dangerous gifts commonly labeled as mental illness,” as the Icarus Project puts it.

    Ultimately, I sort of dream about building a massage practice focused on supporting psychiatric survivors. Although, for the time being, I’m just wondering (anxiously) how I’m going to be able to find a first-massage-job somewhere other than Massage Envy. I was really happy to find your blog. And I just Followed you on Tumblr, too. 🙂

    Also, that book you lent your co-worker sounds awesome. I would love to read something like that. Do you remember what it was called?

    1. Hi Rebecca! It’s called Brain Lock by Jeffrey Schwartz. The book is excellent, especially at helping you disengage from the immediacy and fear that come with obsessions and compulsions. Soon, with diligence (and, in my case, medication), they become a bothersome blip that passes through your consciousness as you go on with your life. A very nice change 🙂

      I love that the psychological and emotional qualities of massage are what inspired you! We focus so much on the physical, but massage is incredible for, mood, anxiety, and other stuff that’s a lot harder to fit into a clinical trial, like self-discovery and -acceptance. Hey, if you end up at a Massage Envy, it’s not the worst thing in the world, just think of it as a stepping stone.

      Man, there’s this massage modality I want to make up where we integrate guided meditation into the work… I’ve tried it a few times with excellent effects, but I wanted to plant the idea in your mind if you wanted to toy with it. If you do, send me feedback 🙂

      Thanks for the lovely comment, I look forward to seeing you around!

  13. I really enjoyed reading your blog and the comments posted. I come from the other side of this topic- I don’t have this particular cross to bear in my life. But I do love somebody who does (my husband). I just want you all to know that I admire people who do the work to figure this out about themselves, and then do what it takes each time to feel better. I am sorry some of you feel isolated. I may not walk in your shoes, but I am completely comfortable walking next to you as you travel this journey, and I know many people who feel the same way I do. The way I see it, each of us has some sort of life issue to deal with; be it illness, anxiety, financial, loss. We are all in this world together. Sharing helps- to feel less alone, to help others understand… thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Ellen, you kick ass. You know, I was kind of sunk in a mire of sadness when I wrote this, and the idea that “people without this have it so much easier” passed through my mind… but it’s garbage. We ALL have to deal with pain, loss, strife, injustice, etc etc. Life, by default, is nasty, brutish, and short, but together we can make it more livable. I’m glad your husband has you 🙂

      Thanks for commenting, and I hope to see you around!

  14. I’ve recently begun having problems with anxiety and OCD, following 8 or so months of being extremely happy and at peace. I don’t think I can remember a time when I was happier. But like you said, whatever this is seems to have a tendency of ebbing and flowing. So we can find some comfort in the fact that maybe in a few weeks or months things will start too look up again.

    I suffer from generalized anxiety and what a lot of people call pure-O OCD, and I’ve obsessed on everything… my sexuality, possible future health problems, the nature of realities, the possibility of going insane…It’s been very difficult.

    Some people know what I go through but don’t fully understand. Others, with whom I’ve tried to be open, can’t see why I couldn’t be happy.

    I really appreciate you post. I resonate with a lot of what you wrote. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for the lovely and honest comment, Liviu. I’m sorry that you’re having to go through this, because it sucks.

      While pure-obsessive OCD exists, and I have no insight into your life, I do have a question: Are there any responses that you make to these obsessions, even if they don’t seem like compulsions? When I was having health concern obsessions, my compulsion was to constantly reassure myself, as well as repeatedly turning to Google to read about diseases I might have, and why I probably didn’t have them (repeat ad infinitum). When I’ve been obsessed with morality, free will, right-acting, etc., I would constantly ruminate on the ideas, their meanings, their consequences, and so on. For the sexuality question, do you find yourself compulsively exploring mental scenarios, and repeatedly feeling the need to reaffirm or question your orientation(s)?

      I ask because pure-O is a tough nut to crack. If, however, you do have some subtle compulsions that you use to either relieve or feed these obsessions, these are possible angles of attack. You might not be performing any visible compulsions, but mental rituals are just as vulnerable to the response prevention techniques that work for hand washing, counting, etc.

      Sorry, I’m trying to fix. Don’t answer if you don’t feel like it, I’m just glad to have you here! Welcome.

  15. Hi Ian, thank you so much for sharing. I am just experiencing my first episode of major depression, and I have been having the hardest time with it. In your post, you described so many things I have been feeling recently, and it is refreshing to learn that I am not the only one feeling this way. Hopefully my depression is circumstantial, and will not be an ongoing problem. Two months ago, life threw me the two of the wildest curve balls I have seen thus far. I have tried so many things to feel better – healthy diet, exercise, rest, medication, meditation, time with friends and family, time alone. I still feel so exhausted and sad. I hope things get better soon. Your candor and insights are truly appreciated. Thank you.

    1. Kasey, it’s greatly encouraging that you responded to the sudden drop in mood so proactively. That’s a good sign for future recovery, even if it didn’t (doesn’t) feel like it at the time. I’d be interested to hear how you’re doing! Thanks so much for dropping by.

  16. I wish I were as articulate at expressing my experiences as you are; actually, my frustration from my lack of ability to express myself in words is a huge contributor to my depression, which is a whole other tangent. Anyway, I can completely relate to losing money due to depression and/or anxiety. I would have thousands more if I were able to get myself out of bed and work more often, and I would be in a way better living situation and, thus, probably happier if I could do that. But I can’t seem to. And it’s a vicious cycle that I’m not sure how to break without the ability to motivate myself to make the money to afford the usual solutions.

    Enough self pitying heh. Just wanted to say thanks for another highly relateable blog post. Obviously, no one’s experience is identical to my own, but in a world of people who seem to not even sort of get it, it’s neat to read the writings of someone who has a pretty good idea of what it’s like and why it just sucky suck sucks.

      1. You’re welcome! Just wanted to express that your writing really resonated with me. I would be in full support of you getting back to blogging. 🙂

  17. Thank you for sharing,it is all me. I’m exactly as you describe. Somehow it makes me feel not so badly about myself. I’ve been wishing to die as never before. Not that I will attempt it, but the wish to vanish is stronger than ever. I’m in a dark lonely place and have been for 50 years. Looking back I can say that I’ve been quite strong, but today, at 54, I feel at the end of my rope.

  18. I realize I’m about 3 years too late, but I am so incredibly thankful you posted this. I have never read, nor been able to truly articulate how depression feels, the guilt and shame that surrounds it, and the constant struggle to get back to life. Depression and anxiety are so isolative in themselves, and it was so comforting to read this. For just a few minutes, I didn’t feel like I was the only one struggling. Your quote “If you deserved to feel this bad, it wouldn’t be a mental disorder, now would it?” made me stop and think “hey, yeah!”. It really helped me look at it more objectively and open myself up for a little more self compassion. I’m not my depression or anxiety, I’m not alone, and I can get out of this.

  19. This is relatable in that I have anxiety. Social anxiety was very bad at one point, so much so that it effected my job. It manifested as body dysmorphia and for a time, I hated for people to see me because I was fixated on what was wrong with my face and body. I did get help and I can function enough to work. Social anxiety almost kept me from going to massage school too. Right now, the body image issues are trying to resurface and it seems to be triggered by my job as a massage therapist. I suspect I need to go back to therapy about this because it’s trying to kick my ass. Love that you’ve written about this. Just now finding this blog. Hope you’re doing well, Ian. 🙂

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