When I disclose to people that I have an autoimmune disorder – systemic urticarial vasculitis, to be specific – a common reaction that I get from people is “I understand because I have anxiety” or “I know how you feel because my depression is debilitating.”
While I don’t doubt that mental illness can be debilitating, it’s not the same as having a chronic illness. Also, it’s harmful to me as someone with chronic illness.
One of the main reasons why it upsets me when people compare their mental illness struggles to my aggressive autoimmune disorder is that I’m not able-bodied, while a person with depression is who doesn’t have a chronic illness and or a disability may be.
A few months back, someone that I’m friends with on Facebook shared a meme which ridiculed people who use social media as a form of activism. I commented explain that, as someone who is disabled because of an autoimmune disease, social media is one of the few ways I can participate in activism, besides donating and phone-banking. She responded to me saying that she understood because she has anxiety.
But having anxiety and being disabled by chronic illness isn’t the same.
Having anxiety can be extremely difficult, and as an anxious person, I completely understand. I’ve struggled with anxiety far longer than I’ve had active autoimmune disease. At points during high school, I sometimes got so anxious before tests that I would have panic attacks and have to convince myself to go to school.
The difference now, during university when I have an active autoimmune disorder, is that I cannot physically get out of bed to go to my classes on some days.
Another reason why people should not compare mental illness to chronic illness is that it undermines how my chronic illness exacerbates my mental health issues.
For example, I’ve always been anxious, so having numbness suddenly start affecting my joints causes me to panic when I’m working on a deadline. In addition, if I’m feeling low and cannot physically get out of bed, I’m going to feel more depressed than I did during high school when I was at least physically able to get out of bed.
Chronic illness is not the only thing that can exacerbate mental health issues. Racism, for example, can have an effect on a person of color’s mental health from a very young age.
But, as someone who is white, it is not my place to tell a person of color with mental illness that I understand what they’re going through, as I don’t.
As Ola Ojewumi, a black woman with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, said in her SELF op-ed “I’m Celebrating My Disabled Black Girl Magic Because I’m Done Feeling Invisible,” black women with disabilities “deal with the triple-headed monster of racism, sexism, and ableism.” Due to this, it would also not be my place to tell a chronically ill person of color that I understand what they’re going through, as I have never and will never experience how racism can have an impact on how doctor’s treat someone’s health.
A part of me being upset when able-bodied people say that they understand what I’m going through physically is because I’m jealous of them. I remember what it was like to struggle with my mental health and not yet have an active autoimmune disorder. I wish more than anything that I could go back to that time. Having a mental health issue isn’t easy, but it’s different than being chronically ill.
In brief: If you’ve never experienced something – whether it be chronic illness, racism, sexism – please don’t say you understand.