Us and Them

“You know their life expectancy is twenty years less than yours and mine?” she says, reading up on side-effects of medications.  Yours and mine, I think.  Well, maybe yours.

I basically operate a policy of non-disclosure at work regarding my own mental health.  Ever since one of my “lovely” colleagues (to whom I had mentioned my experiences after he disclosed some of his) turned to me in a busy handover and said: “of course, you’d know all about side-effects, wouldn’t you?” 

Beyond that, I stay quiet because this work isn’t really about me, or my diagnosis, or my problems.  It’s about the people we are trying to support.  Unless my disclosure would be of direct and substantial benefit to them, I think that my support should be enough to show that I empathise.

What concerns me, though, is this Us vs. Them attitude.  They are more likely to smoke.  They die younger.  We can’t imagine what it must be like for Them because We don’t have mental illness. More dangerously, this leads to: They are like children.  They are playing games.  They get so much in benefits when They don’t have to do anything at all.

And that’s when it becomes a problem for me.  Because I am Them and I am Us.  I don’t (or try not to) operate within the confines of patronising sympathy, but from a place of empathy.  I don’t think you need to have experienced mental illness first hand to be empathetic, by the way- this is why it frustrates me so much when I hear ignorance, patronising words or anything, really, that encourages this Us/ Them way of thinking.

I know it often comes from a place of goodness (“even US without mental illness would find that hard”; “I can’t imagine what it must be like for Them”).  But sometimes inside I am longing to burst this bubble of silence and say things like “yes, I do know a lot about medication… and this is why” or “oh, I’ve taken that one!” or “yes, it IS harder when you have a mental illness” or “I know we’re more likely to smoke…”

I don’t say these things for so many reasons.  Mostly the one I talked about, not wanting to play the “me, me, me” game when it comes to other people’s needs.  But also from fear.  Fear of not being understood.  Fear of being seen as an anomaly.  Fear of not even being believed (you’re nothing like Them- a surprised gasp I hear in my mind).  

There are moments in which I should say something, but don’t.  Not necessarily something about myself, but something that demonstrates more of an understanding than I probably show.  YES, you can take eighteen ibuprofen and still be standing.  NO, that doesn’t make you an attention seeker.  YES, these medications can have horrible side effects but YES, sometimes a person will need to take them for life and NO that demonstrates neither weakness nor over-dependence on something you should be able to”grow out” of because YES I am one of Them, and I know how dangerous that kind of thinking can be.

But, yes.  I am both comfortable and uneasy in this bubble I’ve created.  I watch Us and I watch Them and I think about the thinness of the line between… and of the strange position that leaves me straddling that line, a foot in  each world, terrified and cowardly and brave.

14 thoughts on “Us and Them

  1. As one of Them, this really speaks to me. I like to be open about my mental illness, but it does sometimes lead to me feeling, or knowing, that my feelings, experiences, and beliefs are being discounted because I’m one of them.

    My wife also has bipolar and, like you, she is a mental health worker. It’s put her in some interesting and unpleasant situations, as her mental illness is very well known around here. It does work out for her most of the time. When it doesn’t, it can be very unpleasant.

    Thanks for writing this the Us/Them dichotomy has always bothered me.

    • Thank you for commenting and taking the time to read my post 🙂

      It’s something that’s always bothered me, too, so I am glad it spoke to someone else.

      I know what you mean about openness leaving you open to all sorts of negative thinking from others… But still being a worthy course of action!

  2. We are all Them and we are all Us. We can sometimes hide within the norm; most “tests” put me as a “high functioning sociopath”, which for most people would make me one of Them.
    I have a friend who has had (and still does) mental health issues, which it turns out are as a consequence of a brain tumour [try and deal with mental health and cancer and how other people don’t]. I have a friend on a lifetime of medication for depression and others who are “better now”.
    As much as the “normals” like to see me as one of Us my friendship makes me one of Them. I cannot empathise with them, but I do sympathise. My love makes me one of Them.
    If your empathy helps you love those people you are assisting then that is great, but that source of your empathy does not define all of you; because I’m sure you love people that are not “one of Them”. Don’t let other people’s biases define you or the limits or your love.

  3. That damn line is the only thing I see. I find your ability to break down the stereotypes and express a need to coexist rather than reside in separate camps a calming thought. I’m about to go down to the Human Resources office at my place of employment so that I can be exempted from doing mandatory overtime due to the effect a 16 hour work day has on my mental health. I’m definitely feeling the Us/Them divide.

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