Mental illness is hard to define, but if you live in the United States, you have it. Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD: this is the air we breathe. But it’s important to remember that some people’s mental illness is untreated or they “don’t” “have” “it”. If you learn that someone close to you falls into this category, it can be disorienting, destabilizing, and even scary, but it’s important to show compassion and not ostracize this person even though they’re not on any pills to make their brain work. Here’s how:
Change your language.
Never underestimate the power of language! You might think to yourself, “I’m on an SSRI, plus another SSRI to counteract the side effects of the first one, plus a drug that was originally used to improve hunting dogs’ stamina but then was found to also restore humans’ sex drive. I’m normal.” And you are! But when you use words like “normal”, consider who you cast out of the fold. Try instead saying, “We are all valid, and let me know if you want my psychiatrist’s number.”
Remember they’re still the same person.
Just yesterday you and your dear companion were laughing, commiserating, sharing memes about late-stage capitalism, but now you’ve learned they don’t use drugs to chemically alter their brain in order to function while always wondering what “functioning” even means, and whether or not future science will find their regimen was incredibly dangerous and harmful. It’s likely that this close chum now feels like a stranger, but they’re still that same freak even if their brain just works and their mood is naturally “stable”. Just because it sends a shiver down your spine doesn’t mean you need to uncritically accept that reaction.
Help end the stigma.
Accepting that your friend isn’t medicated is a great first step, but to show them you really care, go the extra mile and fight to end the societal stigma against people not medicated for mental illness. Is there something creepy about a person waking up each day and not having to take all their little pills to make them go? Of course, and we’re not suggesting you ask this type of person to babysit or anything, but you can make them feel less alone! Make an infographic of celebrities who seem like they’re maybe not medicated such as Keira Knightley (?). They will appreciate your support!
Remember, it was brave of your friend to even share their experience of mental wellness with you. Make space for them and challenge your own knee-jerk reactions, or just decide that one of their habits is self-medicating and they’re really even sicker than you could have imagined. This is the work!