catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 11 :: 2011.06.10 — 2011.06.23


Understanding emotional sickness

When we wake up feeling sick, most of us instinctively know what to do. You weigh how you’re feeling against the responsibilities of the day, and the question of whether to stay in bed or (attempt to) get on with the day is a relatively straightforward decision. The illness has already decreed if your capabilities are limited to cancelling everything or if you can still accomplish much of what you had wanted to do. If the illness continues, then you see a doctor: even if the news isn’t good, there’s almost always a cause found.

But what happens when you wake up feeling emotionally unwell? Getting up is hindered by a strong anxiety about whether you can handle the day. Or the desire to meet the day is squelched by the reality that you can’t remember the last time you were excited about anything that you’re doing. Or crying has become so normal that it no longer phases you (or those with whom you live). So maybe you call in sick. Or maybe you ignore the feeling and just keep doing what needs to be done. But then the feelings don’t go away. And the house has gotten messier, friends are starting to get neglected and close relationships with family members are feeling the strain. So what happens then? Are the only two options pretending that there’s nothing wrong or asking for a prescription?

The answer to emotional sickness isn’t obvious. Even the symptoms are hard to recognize: there’s no throwing up and no fever, and no x-rays can find it. And the cause is even less obvious — it’s not like it’s a virus going around. Certainly, there are factors that put a huge strain on emotions, like stress brought about by significant life changes, sadness from losing a loved one, messiness in relationships, disappointments in work or academics. Nonetheless, most of us can and do bounce back from these difficulties: even those of us who’ve suffered from emotional sickness have previously bounced back from bad circumstances. The knowledge that in the past we could handle the stress, anxiety, depression and pressure only makes things harder when it becomes obvious that this time is different.

Most of us do know people who have struggled with depression and are even taking medication for that; in some sense, there is some openness about it. Yet, there’s still a lot that is kept silent: the silence extends from the time of first wondering why feelings of sadness or anxiety haven’t yet gone away until the actual moment when the anti-depression pills start working and make a person “feel like myself” again.  For those having dealt with being emotionally unwell, it’s only when we start feeling better that we are able to talk more openly about what’s been going on. In the midst of being sick, it’s not so much that it’s painful to talk about what’s happening, as much as it’s hard to know what is happening. Part of the sickness is a loss of perspective. Furthermore, one of the worst aspects of being emotionally sick is that it also attacks the hope that things will get better.

Losing one’s perspective also makes it hard not to feel ashamed of being emotionally sick. It’s hard not to ask if the apathy or anxiety being felt isn’t a lack of (emotional) strength, not being open enough to God or even partly laziness (like teenagers who can’t get out of bed). Yet, when we’re physically sick, it’s not like we are made to feel guilty for not having enough faith, strength or willpower. It’s simply seen as an unfortunate series of events: a virus going around, for example. How healthy we eat, whether we sleep and exercise enough, how heavy we are and a history of family illness may provide a direct link to someone’s fever or hospital visit, but they don’t cause us to wonder what is intrinsically wrong with such a person.

Part of the loss in perspective has occurred in society as a whole. Just like society has learned to tolerate bad physical habits, such as over-processed and fatty foods, it’s also tolerated bad emotional habits. The media tends to present being happy all the time as being not only possible, but normal. In that context, how does one learn to cope with sadness in a healthy way, rather than pushing it away? Still others of us haven’t grown up with the language or awareness of emotions: certain cultures don’t make a lot of room for emotions.  Furthermore, those struggling with making it in challenging circumstances (like immigrating) have neither the time nor the energy to deal with emotional wellness. The solution in such a situation is to cut off the emotions, which can be the equivalent of cutting off a limb. And how do you teach someone to use her arm well when you’ve had to cut yours off?

Being emotionally sick tends to turn one’s world upside down. Your emotions are part of what defines who you are. So what happens when you no longer feel you can trust those emotions? Often, by the time a significant problem has been recognized, the immune system of the emotions has already been sorely beaten down and recovery requires a long time and serious measures. Those of us who have struggled with being unwell know that the people around us can be a significant help simply by acknowledging how complicated things are and being patient with us. And since being emotionally unwell isn’t something we’d wish on anyone else, it’s important for those who aren’t afflicted to take care of themselves well. Building healthier patterns for dealing with emotions and fostering challenging and encouraging relationships won’t necessarily prevent someone from becoming emotionally unwell — and yet, it can be the emotional equivalent of stopping the flu from becoming pneumonia.

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