Living With Mental Illness Doesn't Have A 'Look'

by Holly Garcia
Originally Published: 
Mario Arango/Getty

A house in disarray. Plies of unfolded laundry and dishes a mile high in the sink. An unbathed, wild-haired woman who has given up. If you think this is what everyone’s life looks like who lives with a mental illness, then y’all got another thing coming.

One thing to clear up before we delve further into this conversation is that there is a difference between mental health and mental illness even though people use them interchangeably.

Aditi Joshi, the director of Speaking Grey, summed this up for Scary Mommy. “While not everyone lives with mental illness, everyone has mental health. It’s all about your emotional and mental wellbeing.” People who live with mental illness have more specific, intense changes in their emotions, behaviors, or mental states because of the illness.


I’ll apologize in advance for my passionate, unbridled, gives-no-fucks approach to this topic. In addition to living with my own mental illnesses, I’ve had a front-row seat to many loved one’s struggles as well. Y’all, I’m tired as hell of seeing people struggle with invisible illnesses and the rest of the world pretending it’s not really that big a deal because of their invisibility. According to NAMI, one in five people in the U.S. live with a mental illness. So chances are if you don’t personally experience this, there is someone you know who does.

This isn’t a new stat. It’s something you have probably heard before. Yet it baffles the hell out of me how many people have preconceived notions of what people who live with mental illness look like. There is no one-size-fits-all equivalent to us waving a giant flag above our head, saying “I live with mental illness.” Get the fuck out of here.

To do our part to help break the stigma around mental illness, Scary Mommy had the opportunity to speak with a few women from all over the globe about their lives with mental illness. Their one thing in common? They’re all mental health advocates who personally live with mental illness and have graciously and bravely chosen to speak about their experiences to help break the stigma.

Some Days Are Harder Than Others

Personally, when I’m having a day — you know, one of those days when things are going wrong in ways you didn’t even know they could. When you’re late for the conference call (that abso-freakin-lutely should have been an email) and the small people are screaming in the background. When I’m having one of those days, literally anyone who dares breathe in my general direction is in for a surprise. Yeah, that’s me, guilty as charged.

Lyr from South Africa, the founder of Breaking The Chalk, finds herself dealing with the really hard days in a totally different manner.

“I’ve been living with bipolar disorder for 10 years. And some days, when they’re hard, you just have to go on auto-pilot and take things a step at a time with your blinders on. But sometimes, you just can’t. And those are the days to take mental health days and step away from your obligations. When everything feels incredibly magnified, honestly, I kind of just feel like melting, like needing to physically layer myself in blankets for comfort.”

Mental health advocate Emily from the Midwest details her hard days with comorbid depression and PTSD using an analogy that speaks volumes. “You know when you’re watching a 3D movie, and you take the glasses off? You sort of can tell what’s going on, but everything is out of focus — the red and blue aren’t lining up.”

Even when things are feeling topsy-turvy for Emily, most of the time, you wouldn’t even know it. “I’m a smiling depressive. Meaning when intrusive thoughts are overwhelming my brain, and inside I’m fighting emotional surges accompanied by waves of intense physical pain, all you’ll notice (if you notice anything) is that I’m pretty quiet that day.”

Both Lyr and Emily’s experiences speak directly to one of many reasons why we must talk about our mental health and life with mental illnesses openly and honestly. Before receiving treatment for my anxiety disorder and depression, my high-functioning state made it hella difficult to recognize, let alone diagnose. For many, medication is a part of our everyday routine. With that being said, there is no right or wrong way to manage life with a mental illness.

There Is No Right or Wrong Way To Manage

Medication, lots and lots of therapy, and physical activity are only a few ways these mental health advocates help manage their lives with their mental illnesses.

Livia, from the Midwest, talks about how her family encouraged her to seek help for her untreated anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, and psychosis. “I’d constantly feel like I was worried about absolutely everything. My compulsions ended up taking up a lot of my time. But between medication and twice-monthly therapy, I’m getting to a point where I can openly speak about my illnesses and share my story.”

While Livia explained she’d decided to seek support at the beginning of 2020, other advocates Scary Mommy spoke with, like Natasha from Florida, began on a very different path.

“For a very long time (since 11 years old), I struggled with suicidal ideation, which physically manifested in self-harm. I was raised in a culture where we didn’t talk about how we were feeling or why we were feeling that way. So instead, I’d find myself angry, not just angry, but full of rage when I didn’t deal. My family was in deep denial about my depression. On top of that, my dad never dealt with his anger-issues, so it was expected that I would just do the same.” Natasha persevered despite all the chaos and despair even though her parents were in denial about the reality of her mental illness.

She’s spent decades managing her depression and credits where she is today to using physical activity, journaling, and therapy as a release. “I saw a few different therapists. But when I experienced a personal tragedy leaving me overwhelmed by grief, I found someone different who could better help me and understand my needs.”

Most Importantly, Know You Are Not Alone

It’s only been about three and a half years since I’ve began actively treating my mental illness. But y’all, it’s made a world of difference. Obviously, you don’t have to take my word for it. Lyr, Emily, Livia, and Natasha are only a few of millions of people living with mental illnesses, and they chose to share their stories with us as a reminder that we are never alone.

This is how we do it. This is how we break the stigma around mental illness. We normalize it, and we talk about it just like we talk about migraines or diabetes, or any other part of our health. We replace preconceived notions about what mental illness looks like (whatever the eff that means) or how it manifests.

Mental health is health, full stop. Join the conversation so together we can break the stigma. And like your momma said, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Especially all that bullshit about what life with mental illness “looks” like — y’all can keep all that.

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