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A Necessary Conversation

A Necessary Conversation

There’s this definite stigma around chronic illness. It’s easy to create the mental model of disabled and chronically ill people as very Other. I’m no expert, but in my opinion, it’s hard to understand someone else’s experience. But, it’s so important. Empathy is deeply necessary. People are people.  I have never had a visible chronic illness, so I can’t speak to that experience, instead I’m going to focus on invisible illnesses. I’ve always had an uncooperative brain; I have epilepsy and a couple mental illnesses. It’s interesting because I remember a time before I was diagnosed with epilepsy, but even though I didn’t know what it was called I’ve never not had OCD. I don’t even know what that experience would be like. You shouldn’t pity me, I never understood the urge to pity chronically ill people, it’s just a fact. I have large eyes, I make art, I have OCD, I’m 5’3”, I dye my hair. These are just facts about me.

I try to be very open about my mental and physical illnesses in my day to day life. I probably makes some people a bit uncomfortable, but I don’t know how else to fight the stigma around it. Why is there such a big difference between my chronic allergies and my eating disorder? Probably because most people have experienced seasonal allergies before, allergies are normalized. And they come from allergens, an external trigger, so that’s not “your fault.” But all illness is just the body reacting to something, whether it a virus or a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s not your fault that pollen exists and it’s not your fault that you don’t have enough serotonin. If we are open about this stuff, maybe we can all learn from each other. People outside of the experience may learn how to navigate situations they found uncomfortable or learn about something new. We can treat people like people.

There’s a huge issue that comes of romanticizing mental illness, especially if you internalize it and tell yourself you can only create good work when you feel broken. I channel anxiety and the like into my art because that’s how I process, but it’s not the secret key to a masterpiece. Believe it or not, it can be much harder to focus on literally everything when you’re caught in an anxiety spiral, so sometimes rather than making Great ArtTM   it’s watching The Good Place on repeat until you pass out. but that’s not because of my mental illness. As an artist society lets me be eccentric without asking too many questions, but my brain problems are not a quirky fun eccentricity. I’m just kind of strange. I mean, the night is young, and I’ve already eaten 7 kiwis, painted my face gold, and purchased a small sheep. Life is wild.

All of that being said, I think art in its many forms does have a unique ability to communicate what is sometimes impossible to communicate in other situations. Images and sounds and literary device do things that even the deepest conversation may not be able to do. There’s an excellent book called Turtles All The Way Down, by John Green. You may have heard of it. It was one of the most powerful pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. The protagonist is a girl with OCD. Most OCD in fiction is inaccurate or incompletely portrayed, but John Green got it right. This was like reading the inside of my brain. It’s such a powerful book, and I can and have talked about it for long time, but here’s the point. The openness about mental illness in this piece of fiction was so impactful. Maybe living in a way that helps normalize mental illness, or trying to at least, could help somehow. Make some small contribution to empathy. And I think that’s worth something.

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Olivia is a creative human who writes for IDEAS and reads many, many books. Got an idea for a guest blog? Email