Treat brain illness like any other disease--accept it, seek help and adapt.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was 24. “You have to learn to live with the pain,” a doctor told me. “You have a chronic illness. It’s never going away.”
But I couldn’t believe it. How could I be sick for the rest of my life? It couldn’t be right; it didn’t seem fair. I lay in bed that night, rejecting my fate. The denial wasn’t helping my situation. My intestines didn’t care how much I refused to accept their demise; they remained inflamed and damaged.
I don’t suffer the debilitating symptoms of Crohn’s disease any longer, and I haven’t for more than two decades. But I still consider myself someone with the illness. It governs how I live and approach the world. It's a big part of my identity, and it always will be. Once I accepted this, I learned how to adapt. I figured out how to live as normally as possible given the unfortunate truth of my situation.
For over 25 years, my diet has been extremely limited. I went gluten and sugar free way before it was cool. I haven’t had any processed food for ages—sweets, soda, pizza. I haven’t enjoyed a slice of bread or a bowl of pasta since 1995. I used to miss these things but don’t anymore. I know that by following a careful diet, I keep myself from the agonizing effects of my disease.
Although devastating at the time, my diagnosis was a lucky one. Crohn’s disease can change your life, but it doesn’t carry a stigma. Rather than treat me with prejudice or contempt when hearing about my sickness, people showed support and compassion. I never felt shamed by those around me. I never felt weak or inferior or that the illness was somehow my fault.
The same cannot be said of mental illness. Unfortunately, when a sickness affects your brain, society treats you differently. But it’s worse than that. We treat ourselves differently, too. This is perhaps the most devastating part of the stigma.
Brain illness influences our self-identity in ways both blatant and insidious. The stigma is built into our laws. You are assumed to be unstable, dangerous or inferior. You can’t be elected to office; you can’t hold certain jobs. But it also manifests itself in hushed conversations and rolled eyes. It sneaks into our language, infiltrating common phrases. Like the poison of racism, it divides us into separate groups. You can’t be in one if you’re in the other.
We have lived with these biases for so long that we believe them ourselves. Rather than suffer prejudice, we deny our sickness. Like my younger self dismissing Crohn’s disease, we refuse to accept the reality of our situation. And it locks us into an even harder struggle. With Crohn’s disease, my resistance lasted months; with PTSD, it persisted for years. Again, I was fortunate. Many times, a brain illness can be far more destructive, and waiting years is not an option.
And that’s the real tragedy—these illnesses must be addressed early. We can’t quickly change society’s approach to brain health, but we can change our own. If you accept a mental illness, whatever it might be, you can take the necessary steps to resolve it or adapt appropriately. You can reach out for help, see a therapist or reduce stress. You can meet with a psychiatrist and find the correct medication to adjust the chemical balance in your brain. Most importantly, you can move from being a victim to becoming a survivor.
I wiped away my own mental health prejudice years ago. It allowed me to see my PTSD for what it was—a brain disorder that was standing in the way of my happiness. Acceptance is not surrender, not for any “normal” disease and not for one of the brain. I often think of Michael J. Fox and his relationship with Parkinson’s disease. We all could learn a lot from how he approaches it: