This is What Mental Illness Looks Like

This is what mental illness looks like:


Me and my son Xander

I am not ashamed. I have Bipolar disorder (or depression depending on which of my many psychiatrists you ask.) My disorder is not a secret. I don’t hide it from friends and family, but neither do I broadcast it.

That doesn’t mean I’m ashamed. Someone with a physical disorder would not be expected to go around broadcasting it (or judged if they did in most cases.) But there is a stigma against mental illness, and I’ve been advised that being too vocal about my disorder will drive people away (both professionally and personally.) And I read advice on keeping a professional face online, especially if you are using the platforms to promote yourself. After all talking about negative feelings drives people away.

This is why I’ve remained mostly silent on the issue when it comes to social media. I figured if speaking would harm me, why do it? It’s not like my words on the subject are expert or my stories earthshattering.

Nor is it all just what I’ve been told—I’ve lost friends both in online form and in personal form because they got fed up with dealing with my issues. Long absences drive people away too…and since I can’t cope when I’m hurting, I have to disappear. When I can barely keep myself going I don’t have the energy to maintain social relations. I couldn’t speak when I am depressed even if I wanted to. That is why I’ve remained silent for so long.

I have not been silent because I’m ashamed.

But now, I feel a need to speak out. Even if my words won’t change anyone’s life. Even if only a few people ever see them…the problem I’m seeing more and more is that when those of us coping with mental illness remain silent, it makes us look ashamed. And it keeps the face of mental illness looking desperate and unsolvable.

Maybe my words won’t do any good but my silence is doing harm.

This is what mental illness looks like:


So is this:



And this:

2011-12-10 06.01.59

The worst part for me of discussing my mental illness in the past is that many people feel the need to foist their anti-medication beliefs on me. I’m told I don’t really have a mental illness—it’s over diagnosed. Or I’m told I don’t really need meds that if I exercised and slept regularly I’d be fine.

Let me address these statements.

First: You don’t really have a mental illness.

I am a functioning member of society—yes. It’s true. But that is because I take my meds and because I have a loving and supportive family and a husband who helps prop me up when I start to slip. Who bears with me through months of weeping and barely getting out of bed when a medication stops working or I have to switch meds. They never, ever tell me I need to try and suffer through without meds. I am privileged to have this—my life could have gone very differently.

I don’t need to prove I’m sick to the people I meet—in fact, I don’t want to because that means the disease has taken over.

And sometimes it does take over—even when I’m on meds.

One night, probably eight years ago, my now husband, then boyfriend, Aaron and I had a fight. He stormed out of the house.

Now, this sort of event upsetting for anyone. But I’ve seen people deal with fights and be fine. I can’t compartmentalize those feelings. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I breathe shame and self-hatred along with air. I hate myself so deeply and so much that the idea of someone else hating me seems to confirm how much space and energy my very existence is wasting. Even when online correspondents have gotten upset at me, I often lose sleep and am a ball of self-loathing for days. It’s worse when it’s someone I love.

No there is no physical pain—but that mental anguish can be just as unbearable. It’s torture hating yourself that much—every inch of your body feels offensive. The only relief would be oblivion, to curl into yourself and stop having to exist.

Now, that night, when Aaron stormed out over some fight I don’t even remember now, I had a full bottle of pills in the house. They were meant to calm my anxiety, to help me back down from those emotions I couldn’t escape. I took one. I took two. And every second waiting for them to DO SOMETHING was excruciating. I didn’t want to die—I just couldn’t endure being me. I wanted to sleep and hoped when I woke things would be better.

I took a handful of pills.

I wasn’t trying to die, I was trying to make the hurting stop—to get out from under that weight.

Then the world went fuzzy. I got scared. I tried to puke the pills up but couldn’t. Plus, I couldn’t get my limbs to work properly. I managed to stumble from the bathroom to the living room couch.

Aaron came home. I don’t know what would have happened if he didn’t. I tried to pretend I was fine—I just needed to sleep. I didn’t want to admit what I’d done and have him hate me. I tried to walk to bed. But it turns out, my legs forgot how to work and I kept slipping in and out of consciousness.

I found myself laying on the floor under the breakfast bar. I couldn’t stand up. I remember saying again and again that I was okay, that I just needed to go to bed.

Aaron called an ambulance.

I recall insisting to the paramedics that I could walk, but since I couldn’t even stand they didn’t believe me. I don’t remember arriving at the hospital. What I do remember is the doctor heavily implying I’d tried to kill myself and telling me that my blood pressure was so low that if he hadn’t been standing in front of me he would’ve thought I died.

That scared me.

He didn’t say I almost died. I don’t know if I did. I probably would have been fine if I’d fallen asleep on the couch.

But maybe not.

I’m not proud of that night, or what I put Aaron through. No one should have to experience what he did—that fear. Since then I have looked up every medication I have to be sure that even if I downed the whole bottle it wouldn’t kill me (the lithium wouldn’t be good for me at all), just to be sure that even if I slipped, I wouldn’t put him through that.

Don’t tell me what I do or don’t suffer from. If you don’t see me as sick, that means my regime of pills is working.


Second: Exercise and regular sleep are better cures than pills.

I have been depressed since I was four.

In kindergarten, I had such trouble socializing with the other children that I had no friends at all. One day we had to take pictures and our teacher had us pair up. No one wanted a picture with me. I cried at the back of the line and the teacher had to force someone to stand next to me.

I played at recess by myself, talking to blades of grass who were the closest to friends I had.

When I look back at elementary it brings up a deep horror.

My parents tried everything they knew of—they saw there was a problem but had no idea that a child my age could be depressed. They tried to force me to go outside and play with the neighborhood kids and I tried, but every interaction was excruciating as I judged and insulted my every word, breath, and motion. My parents struggled with me, hurting when I hurt, but having no solution in sight.

At twelve I tried to kill myself. I swallowed a bunch of nightshade berries.

My parents found me a psychiatrist. She diagnosed me with depression (the bipolar diagnosis came later after years of me outgrowing medications that never fully worked.) She put me on Zoloft.

My world changed. Suddenly it didn’t always hurt to be in my skin. I could even enjoy social interactions sometimes (though I remained painfully reticent and easily spooked).

Let me tell you, exercise and sleep wasn’t the issue. You think that at four, at five, at twelve I didn’t exercise enough or that my parents didn’t give my regular sleep hours? Sure those things can be supplements to help keep someone stable, but don’t ever tell someone they don’t need meds unless you actually understand why they have them.

This is what mental illness looks like:

Family Jesse Sprague

It’s easy to picture only those who have failed to function within society as what mental illness looks like. But that is doing everyone with mental illnesses a disservice. Because even those people who couldn’t make it, that beggar on the street corner talking to himself, for instance, shouldn’t be seen as lost causes. If you only consider the failures you miss the point that mental illness may be a life sentence but it isn’t a death sentence.

The fact I’m not homeless or drug addicted, or dead in a ditch is not proof I’m not ill. It’s proof that if we support and understand those with mental illnesses, it’s just as survivable as any impairment.

I easily could have ended up on a street corner. I didn’t because my family never told me my mental illness was my fault or something to be ashamed of. I didn’t because when my boyfriend found me overdosed on pills he didn’t leave me, he insisted I get counseling. I didn’t because that first time I tried to kill myself, my parents immediately got me help, and listened to what the experts said.

Not everyone has this support. I’d love to think that those people who don’t have the perks I had, live in a world where they can open up and get assistance and support. But that isn’t the world we live in. Instead, we’re told not to post our offensive sadness on social media. And as long as that is true, I’m affraid mental illness’ uglier face will always be more visible.

Please, be kind and understanding. When those people do open up to you…don’t turn away. Everyone needs strength, and we can’t always carry our own weight.

Mental illness can look like anyone.

11 thoughts on “This is What Mental Illness Looks Like

  1. This was a lovely post, Jesse. I’m glad you have loving people in your life that are there for you. One of my biggest issues is anxiety, so I worry about everything. I also have people who support me, so luckily, I’m still here. You are a brave and wonderful person^^


  2. You’re not alone and speaking will begin the road of hope for those who are alone. Mental illness needs to be a much louder voice then it has. My name is Jeanie and I refuse to be silent about my bipolar.


  3. I like this jess. I like when you share. Its very poignant. I wish incould convince you that other peoples opinions do not make you, nor do you owe them anything. I know shit is hard. I will always actually be here for you of you need, despite our lapse in social engagement.


  4. You are in very good company. Ted Turner comes to mind. My psychiatrist told me years ago, in an attempt to make me feel better…..I guess, that most of the folks at Microsoft who accomplished anything were BP. You are “spot on” that we are as well and as functional as our resources allow. Excellent piece of writing. Marilyn


  5. Jesse… it took me a while to respond because it hurt and brought up many difficult memories of our teen years together. We all deal with things in our own way, some explosive and others imploding. You’re more than a friend to me, you’re my family, and close to all I can say I have left. I can’t say I’ve made a lot of great decisions in my life but I can say scaring the crap out of you that day, asking you to walk home with me, was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. You’re braver than you know. My life wouldn’t be the same without you, and many people can say that. Believe it or not I admire you tremendously and this post just furthers that feeling even more. You are not your illness. You are Jesse, a loving wife, the best friend anyone could ask for, a wonderful mother, a daughter any parent would want to have, a talented Author and artist, thoughtfully funny, kindhearted, inspirational, and a survivor of mental illness. It’s only a small, but undoubtedly impactful, part of the puzzle that is Jesse. I love you. I love that puzzle, every single piece. ❤


  6. Ah love its splendid you chose to put this out there because at times society can compel mentally ill people to feel obligated to constantly be in a violent fluctuation. As if there must be a physical embodiment of our anguish. As if one person’s experience compares another. Everyone experiences things differently and yes there are people for example spreading awareness about anxiety but they’re not spreading awareness about MY anxiety. Thanks for the grand read, love! xx


  7. I really relate to this post. I love the photography espiecially. I know what you mean about not being diagnosed properly. I had that experience too, every doctor having a different opinion. I recently wrote a post on multiple diagnoses. Take a look if you like. . I have sadly also lost a lot of friends both by long silence and by speaking out. I wish we could get more people to understand the true nature of these illnesses.


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