Passing

Today I heard another example of  “I would never have guessed in a million years that this person experienced mental illness” (because the person was affable and successful in business). When I heard it about myself, I used to take it as a compliment. It meant I was passing, that if I was depressed I was at least hiding it well.

Now I feel this kind of statement conveys less about the person being talked about and more about the speaker. Not being aware that people with mental illness can run Silicon Valley businesses, or manage their symptoms, or hide their symptoms, or be authentically happy some of the time and wretched at other times, strikes me as kind of ignorant.

(Meanwhile, people usually understand that “I don’t think of you as black” or “You don’t look Jewish” are not actually compliments.)

21% of Americans between 18 and 49 meet criteria for a mental illness each year. And it fluctuates over time – someone who met criteria for an illness last year might have fewer systems this year, so the percentage of people who have had a mental illness at some point is higher than that. You probably also know people like me whose combination of symptoms never technically met the definition of a disorder, but who sure weren’t doing well. We’re everywhere. And yet most of these people don’t have significant impairment – they’re still working, raising families, being members of Congress, etc.

Years ago I was shocked when my coworker, an older woman I revered, mentioned that she was in recovery from addiction. It didn’t square with my image of her, so I tried to hide my surprise and said nothing. I wish now I had said, “Congratulations,” that I had done something to honor her hard work and her ongoing success.

There’s nothing wrong with being surprised when you learn something that updates your sense of a person. But use it to better understand the world (now I know some blue-eyed people are Jewish! Now I know successful entrepreneurs can still develop life-threatening depression!) and not to convey your surprise directly to the person in question. It’s not fun to hear something that sounds like, “Wow, I didn’t know people like you could seem so normal!”

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