When mental illness is described as being identical to physical illness, I can’t help but cringe. Don’t get me wrong, I know what advertisers and mental health representatives are trying to accomplish by making these comparisons, and it is a very noble goal. They want legitimate treatment and understanding. They want the prejudice associated with mental illness to come to an end. But mental illness is not identical to physical illness. Mental illness is most often not easily cured through a step-by-step process (for example, medication, therapy, and rest) as many physical illnesses are; there are as many environmental influences contributing to the sickness as genetic and biological; and, in severe cases, mental illness can never be cured. Mental illness is something that dwells in one’s heart and mind constantly. It can affect relationships, school, and work — it can even go so far as to completely change one’s personality. To simplify mental illness by equating it with physical illness can be dangerous, and it also usually isn’t that easy: you can’t wrap mental illness up and prop it on a pillow with a bag of frozen peas.
That being said, there is one very important commonality between physical and mental illness, and it is that they both surpass logic and are uncontrollable. Just as a person with the flu cannot decide to stop vomiting, so a person with depression cannot decide to change his or her mood, or “snap out of it,” as they say. I like to compare mental illness, and bipolar disorder in particular, to swimming. About two and a half years ago I was diagnosed with having mild bipolar disorder, but only recently have the symptoms flared up once more, and seemingly stronger than ever. I have found it infinitely useful to have a simple analogy at hand when talking with people who don’t quite understand the disorder.
Yes, it is like swimming. Or, when I am depressed, like drowning. When I am depressed it is like I am only half-swimming, floating three feet or so below the surface of the water, unable to breathe. I can see the sunlight above, shining through the water, and so I know, from what my senses tell me, that everything is as it always was. But I am still drowning. I still can’t breathe, and I still can’t swim to the surface. Something inside of me has malfunctioned. Something has broken the connection between logic and conscious thought. The manic episodes are as if I can suddenly and inexplicably swim with great strength upward, bursting from the water and sucking in the air. I can dash and roll and race and splash. I can swim front crawl across the entire lake (I can read novels and complete school work and exercise and write blog posts — yes, now you know what state of mind I was in while writing this). I can do anything. In fact, I couldn’t do nothing if I tried. The energy pounding through my body is like electricity that will zap me if I slow down. But, after a time, I sink back under the water, unable to swim when moments before I couldn’t do anything but swim. I drown again, forgetting that I ever knew how to swim, just as when I was swimming, I had forgotten it was possible to drown.