Despite what you see on talk shows or hear from your psychiatrist, the reality is that nobody really cares if you have mental illness. This fact is particularly true with Borderline Personality Disorder. Who would take an interest in your wellbeing if you are constantly flying off the handle, acting depressed, or even self mutilating? It’s likely your closest family and friends keep you at arm’s length, avoiding the inevitable turmoil that comes when “normal” people interact with those that have mental illness. As for psychiatrists: yes, sometimes you can feel a sense of support and nurturing, but it only lasts for an hour and comes at a financial price. After all, they have to make a living too, and if that means attempting to treat you and your mental illness, they will of course seek some sort of compensation for their time and effort.
I also found this to be true with my diabetes as well, although this condition is much more globally acceptable than mental illness. Aside from random people reminding me what I can or can’t eat, most people could care less that I have diabetes. Overall, they don’t treat me any differently, nor respect the fact that I’ve been given an enormous challenge for the rest of my life. Instead, I get brushed off and sidelined, unless I really make a point of telling everyone that I’m chronically ill, and maybe even have a few insulin reactions in public. Surprisingly, histrionics and passing out seem to better convey the urgency of my condition than simply telling someone, “Yeah, I’m diabetic, it really sucks and it never goes away.” In one ear, out the other.
I’ve barely told anyone outside my parents and immediate friends about my struggles. It would seem desperate to tell casual acquaintances, and might make people think you’re seeking attention that isn’t warranted. As a result, when the day-to-day realities of having Borderline Personality Disorder surface, people cast you off as a complete asshole, someone who needs to be committed, or someone who has severe emotional stability issues (all of which are true, I suppose). Similarly with Diabetes, general knowledge dictates that it is relatively “easy” to treat. Most people believe diabetics can just take a pill, even though pills are for Type 2 Diabetics. To the contrary, Type 1 diabetics, like me, require constant insulin infusion and mental focus about daily activities and eating habits.
Before I go any further, a natural rebuttal to my suggestion that “nobody cares about your illnesses” would be to simply inform people and remind them about your condition on a regular basis. Tell friends, teachers, coaches, or scoutmasters that you need to take insulin as a Type 1 Diabetic. Tell extended family, aunts and uncles, and in-laws that your BPD makes you moody and unpredictable. The problem with this course of action is that you inevitably become the victim of society’s stigma against those with chronic illnesses, particularly serious mental health issues like BPD. Furthermore, you feel like you’re apologizing in advance for making others’ lives more complicated, knowing that you need special attention and a little extra slack.
Let me share a brief, but telling example of this phenomena.
During my Sophomore year in college, I decided to run cross country, in part because I joined the track team the spring before, and thought that I could get stronger running during the fall. This was before I was diagnosed with BPD, although I’m positive it was circulating through my system at that point.
Naturally, my father met with my coach and explained that my diabetes might act up once in a while, and that I might need extra care or an easier training regimen if my blood sugars went out of whack. Of course, my coach then informed the team that I had this condition, and told them to let him know if they thought I needed medical attention.
Luckily, I’m a fairly well controlled diabetic, and I’m not a drama queen about it. I didn’t speak up about my diabetes unless there was an extreme emergency (which never happened), nor if I thought my daily running would be “too much” for me. As a result, my teammates and coaches slowly “forgot” about my condition and seemed to conclude that I was no different than anyone else, save the need for daily insulin shots. In effect, they sort of became complacent to the notion that I didn’t need extra consideration because I didn’t ask for it.
All things considered, the thing that upset me the most happened at the end of practice each day. In general, it was customary for everyone to gather their things and head off to the dining hall for a team meal. As a diabetic, this meant I needed to test my post-practice blood sugar level, and then draw up an injection of insulin in anticipation of dinner. Instead of politely waiting for me to take care of myself, which was really no more than 3-5 minutes at most, the team would simply leave practice without me. Only one other teammate stuck around with me, and I was extremely grateful that he did that, and let him know each and every day.
I didn’t expect to coddled by my college cross country team or to be presented with a special award for competing despite my condition. I just wanted acknowledgement and respect, and more importantly, to be a member of the team just like everyone else. To the contrary, I ended up arriving in the dining hall after the team had picked up their food and found a table, and this usually meant I wasn’t able to sit with them because they didn’t bother to save me a seat.
There might be many reasons for this behavior, even some that have nothing to do with my diabetes. The point, however, is that I didn’t make a big issue about my diabetes on a daily basis. I wasn’t passing out after runs or having to drop out of races. In return, I thought my teammates would respect my efforts to conform to team standards and at least save me a seat in the cafeteria.
The lesson: Whether or not you are in control of your mental illness, diabetes, or whatever condition you have, no one really cares about it. They won’t go out of their way to help you unless you make a stink about it, and by the time that need arises, the people around you will think you’re gunning for sympathy and attention.
What can be done? All I can say is this: If you know someone who is mentally ill or has chronic illness ( or both ), don’t make a big deal about it. Instead, offer them small favors that would make a big difference in their day. Just as a wheelchair bound person appreciates someone opening a door, those with mental illness or other “invisible” health conditions like diabetes don’t want your pity, they just want your respect and thoughtfulness. These small gestures go a long way, and make coping with a chronic condition much easier.