What Is Mental Illness?

My brain doesn’t quite work the way it’s supposed to. It hasn’t for as long as I can remember.

For example, it doesn’t always process sensory information properly, like sight and balance. My field of vision is sometimes interrupted by angular flashes of light, or I’ll go to scratch my nose and end up smacking myself in the face because my proprioception switched off for a fraction of a second – that is, my brain momentarily lost track of where my hand was in relation to the rest of my body. Or, as I walk down the street, my sense of balance disappears mid-stride just long enough for me to fall into a stranger’s path.

People are not very understanding about any of this. They find it disturbing that my brain doesn’t function 100% perfectly – as if I must have committed an unspeakable sin in a past life and this is my punishment. Sometimes they behave as if I am doing it just to irritate them.

This must be so difficult for you.
This must be so difficult for you.

But the occasional failure of my brain, while frustrating, is not a character flaw. Some of it is possibly related to my having Guillain–Barré at age five. GB is a disease that affects the nervous system with symptoms similar to those of multiple sclerosis (in fact, I had to have a spinal tap to rule out MS, which means they stuck a giant needle into my tiny spine with no anesthetic) and for months after I left the hospital, my reflexes were non-existent.

I consider it likely that a neurological disease in childhood had an impact on my neurological function later in life, and I fail to see how this is much different from someone who lost the tip of their finger in a childhood accident. When I was in my tot-sized wheelchair, people didn’t look at me with disgust; but that all changed when I forced myself out of it. Instead of being in a wheelchair for up to a year, as the doctor’s predicted, I spent a couple of weeks in it before I decided I’d rather be a little unsteady on my feet and crawl when I had to – because, apparently, 5-year-old me was stubborn as hell.

People were sickened by this – seeing a 5-year-old climb a flight of stairs on her hands and knees.

Awww, I feel so bad.
Awww, I feel so guilty.

People are similarly sickened by any mildly strange behavior I exhibit as an adult. The difference is that, when I was a child, and my mother explained that I’d lost my strength and balance temporarily due to physiological circumstances, those same disgusted people suddenly sympathized. Or, rather, empathized, because they correctly recognized that they themselves were not physically perfect, either.

Mental issues are, at their core, physiological. My brain doesn’t always make appropriate use of neurochemicals, just like a Type 1 diabetic’s pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin. Basically, I’m not physically perfect. This doesn’t mean I deserve to be treated like I’m sub-human.
To anyone who can’t grasp this: you have a lot more problems with your own brain than I do with mine.

One Comment Add yours

  1. I would have to disagree with this viewpoint. I would say mental issues at their core are often relational / experiential – of course this is expressed phenemenologically through physiology, but that is different from being caused or originating from brain chemicals. I recovered from Borderline Personality Disorder not by focusing on having a broken brain, but rather by understanding how traumatic relationships had damaged by emotional development (and thereby my brain chemistry) and learning how to develop better relationships (and thereby fix my faulty brain chemistry).