This has been said to me a few times over the past few years since I have become more public about my mental health. However, I never expected this to come out of the mouth of a medical professional.
I recently had a doctor’s appointment with a new doctor who seemed to be in a rush, and did not look at my medical history before walking into my exam room. After the introductory banter and exam he saw some of my scars from when I self-harmed in the past. He looked at me as if his eyes were going to pop out of his head. He asked what they were from, and I matter-of-factly said what happened in the past and described my mental health conditions. He said, “But you look so normal! Wait, I have to sit down.”
That’s exactly what someone who struggles with their mental health does not want to hear, especially from a medical professional. Is there a certain way that I am supposed to look because of my condition?
One thing that I have found the most difficult suffering with depression is going out and socializing. It requires a lot of effort from someone who is already exhausted from their medication regimen and from managing their depression. Socializing requires getting out of bed, getting dressed, and looking as put-together as possible … the exact opposite of what your depression is telling you to do. On top of that, you then have to see people and act as if you had a regular day like everyone else, and speak about the usual Jewish-mother topics.
Suffering with a mental illness is extremely difficult in itself. It’s one of those things that other people don’t know about unless you tell them. You can receive several different awkward reactions like the ones I’ve received over the years: “I would have never guessed, you’re always so happy!”; an uncomfortable response of “I’m sorry” with a quick topic change; or unsolicited advice such as ‘You should garden; I hear that helps people with depression.” This is why so many people choose to keep their mental health diagnosis to themselves. Sometimes it’s the responses you get that make you feel so much worse.
However, I have also received some very positive responses since coming out with my mental health struggles. It’s natural to ask the person struggling: “How can I help?” Here are some simple, practical ways to let the other person know that you’re thinking of them:
—Bring over an unexpected Shabbat treat for the family: cut-up fruit, bakery items, even some candies for the kids.—If you have a child in the same age group or even the same class, invite them over for a playdate.—Pick up a card from your nearest store. It can be a funny one or a more heartfelt one. It’s a great surprise to receive something in the mail that isn’t a bill or solicitation.—Send a funny GIF or meme via text message; a smile can go a long way.—If you are close enough with the person, offer to go out for coffee, dinner, a manicure, karaoke, a walk around the park, or anything else you may feel comfortable with.—COVID permitting: schedule a movie night in with your friend. They choose a movie and you supply snacks. Many times leaving the house can be a struggle for someone living with a mental illness.—If you work with them, bring them an unexpected iced drink from your morning coffee run.
These are just a few suggestions of kindnesses that people have done for me and my family, which have been a huge help.
Our communities are becoming more aware of mental illnesses, and learning that more people suffer than they would think. Deep down, mental illness is just like any medical chronic illness; it’s something that a person—and their family—has to deal with on a regular basis. Just because you may not be able to see them suffering on the outside, it’s still there. We say in the tefillah for cholim: “Refuat hanefesh u’refuat haguf.” It’s not just about the physical healing, it’s about the emotional healing as well.
Yes, I may “look normal,” but that’s because I am. I’m just like everyone else. My mental illnesses don’t define who I am as a person; rather it is something I struggle with. Just like behind each person’s smile is a story that we know nothing about—and that’s OK.
Shelli Sussman is working to destigmatize mental illness in the Jewish community. She wants to dedicate this article to all of the amazing people who have helped both her and her family through the unpredictable waters of living with a mental illness. She can be contacted at: [email protected]