“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increase the burden: It is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken’.”C.S. Lewis
Because of common misconceptions about ADHD and mental illness, I have been misunderstood for the vast majority of my life. I have been shamed and called names; even abandoned and scorned by the people I loved and needed the most. I have been “othered” by my peers and reprimanded by my bosses. I’ve been called lazy, flighty, and toxic. If only people understood what was happening in my brain. If I could open it up for them to look inside.
Alas, I cannot. Instead, I’m going to write about common misconceptions about ADHD and mental illness. You’ve probably heard some of them. The things that people think make them say things like, “Wow! I wouldn’t have ever guessed that you have depression. You seem so happy when you’re at work,” or, “You don’t look like you have ADHD.” Misconceptions lead to people not having a real and true picture of what mental illness really looks like.
The first time anyone said something like this to me, I was about 19 or 20. I was going through my first major depressive episode. It was severe and it came on hard and fast. I wouldn’t know it for many years to come, but intrusive thoughts filled my head, day and night. Thoughts of hurting myself or driving into retaining walls on the interstate. I was missing loads of work because I couldn’t get out of bed most days.
I realized quickly that I was going to need to tell my boss. It never occurred to me that it was something you shouldn’t tell your boss. It wasn’t my fault; it was something that was happening to me. I didn’t understand the world then but, honestly, I don’t think I would do anything different. I have disclosed to every boss I’ve had since then as well, to mixed results. I digress, I marched into her office one day and said, “I’m dealing with really bad depression. This is why I’ve been missing so much work. I’m trying to get help, but I might miss more work.”
“I would have never guessed that you are depressed!” Those were the first words out of her mouth. It took me by surprise. How on Earth could she possibly know? She sees me in a professional environment, for a short amount of time each week. Did she think that a depressed person would come to work in their pajamas and cry at their desk all day? Admittedly, I’ve done both, just not at the same time and not at that job.
How could she possibly know that, on the way home from work, there was a point on the interstate that I considered driving into the aforementioned wall? How would she know that I went home to an empty apartment; no friends or family, to speak of, and usually fought suicidal thoughts until I passed out? How would she have been able to tell that I slept more than I was awake and that I cried all the time? How could she know that my soul was made out of an excruciating pain that I could make go away and it was swallowing me whole? How can you tell that just by looking at a person?
Her misconceptions told her that she knew all that she needed to know about people with mental illness; I didn’t fit that picture in my business attire and my willingness to learn and work hard. That was the first time, but it certainly won’t be the last. Stigma is hard to bust and minds are hard to change, but that’s why I’m here on The Winter Of My Discontent; to bust stigma and change minds.
Misconceptions about mental illness and ADHD
Misconceptions, #1: Children don’t experience mental illness. This is a misconception that has affected me deeply. Most of my illnesses showed signs early, but no one believed children could be mentally ill and most believed only boys could have ADHD, so they passed it off as bad behavior, defiance, and rebellion. They said I was attention-seeking when I voiced that I was sad or unhappy and they blamed my mediocrity at everything on laziness. Essentially, my mental health symptoms were character flaws, in their eyes, and eventually in mine too.
We now know that children do present with mental illness and they definitely present with ADHD. Half of all mental disorders show their first signs before the age of 14. By the time I was 14, I had tried suicide once. It was, again, passed off as attention-seeking and “not serious.” I think that, no matter how serious the attempt, the fact that your 14-year-old was even thinking about suicide is a huge red flag, but who am I?
Misconceptions, #2: You can’t recover from mental illness. As I’ve written about before, many people do recover from mental illness and go on to live full and happy lives. I have discovered recovery myself and I am working my way towards it.
Misconceptions, #3: People with mental health issues are unpredictable and violent. This is one of my biggest pet peeves. People with mental illness are no more likely to commit violence than people without it. This topic comes up every time there is a mass shooting in the United States and it makes me angry; it pushes the narrative that mental illness should be feared.
Misconceptions, #4: A person in a mental health episode can never feel normal. I cannot tell you how false this is. We still work. We still laugh with our friends. We still go to birthday parties and raise our children and take care of our pets. We’re still normal in all the ways that neurotypical people are normal. Even in my darkest depressions, I still found times to laugh with my friends. It was what happened when I was alone again that was the kicker; my own brain turning on me the second there wasn’t a distraction.
Misconceptions, #5: ADHD meds are meth. Just stop. You sound stupid.
Misconceptions, #6: Mental illness and ADHD are a problem of will. I promise you that if we could will it away, we would. In a heartbeat. No one wants to feel like this. No one wants this pain, anger, and hopelessness. No one wants to be so sad that they want to die. It isn’t an issue of wanting to be happy or wanting to be better. In the same way that you can’t will away diabetes or thyroid disorder, you can’t will away a brain disorder either.
Misconceptions, #7: Weakness or character flaws cause mental illness. People with ADHD and mental illness are some of the strongest, most resilient people I have ever met. Living life with a brain disorder is hard, but our disorders are not a flaw in our character. I recently thought back on my trials of the last 7 or 8 years. Tons of trauma; lots and lots and lots of mental health issues. Then I started thinking about all the years before; tons of trauma; lots and lots and lots of mental health issues.
Every episode had one common theme; I fought. No matter how bad things got, I fought to live. I clawed my way out of the deepest darkest holes. Sometimes I had a hand up, sometimes I didn’t. Either way, in the end, it was always me who pulled myself out. That knowledge had made me feel stronger than I ever have in my life. We are sick, not weak.
These are just a small handful of examples of misconceptions about ADHD and mental illness. We have to keep using our voices and telling our truth to bust through these stigmas; they are painful and harmful. Together, we can fight for a difference and truth.
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Love and light! Keep fighting the good fight!💜💜
Writing about living with ADHD and mental illness and my journey down a thriving path forward. Breaking stigmas and creating community, one post at a time.