Stop Calling Me Brave!

I am so sick and tired of people telling me how courageous I am. 

Every time I open up about my brain illnesses in my writing, I get a barrage of feel-good comments from people who are “so proud” of me for sharing my story.

Look, I appreciate that people are proud of me. I appreciate that they think I’m brave. But if that’s all they’re getting from my words, they’re missing the point and I’m wasting my time.

It’s not just me. I see this happen often when someone with a brain illness shares their story. It turns into a love fest that, while well-intentioned, doesn’t solve anything because people assume the person is only getting something off their chest. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, it’s more than that.

I don’t share my experiences so people will give me validation. Sure, that feels good. I won’t deny that. And, sometimes writing about my health is therapeutic. But, I also know that many people will give my story the side-eye, and will stay silent while thinking in their head, “this guy’s crazy.” So, validation really isn’t a logical motivator.

The whole point of sharing these stories is to get people to understand a few basic things:

  1. Brain illnesses are real. This is mind-numbingly obvious, but somehow, saying that is still a novelty. Brain illnesses are not things that people make up. They’re not an excuse. They’re certainly not a sign of weakness. They are, simply, illnesses.
  2. Brain illnesses are no different than other physical illnesses. “Mental illness” is such a misguided term. The brain is a physical component no different than any other part of the body. Sure, the treatment is different, but the same can be said for people being treated for diabetes, as opposed to cancer. The treatment in those cases is different from one another, as well.
  3. Brain illnesses are common. Newsweek reported in 2014 that nearly one in five Americans suffer from brain illnesses each year. Yet, so many people are scared to talk about them because of the stigma attached. This is extremely frustrating and very sad, because if we all were honest with each other about our health, we would be able to see that it’s a common thing. Then, we wouldn’t be afraid to accept it, get help for it, and advocate help for others.
  4. Having a “rough time” doesn’t necessarily mean you have a brain illness. Sure, hard times can factor into depression, but a brain illness is chemical and genetic. Even behavioral disorders are thought to have a genetic component.
  5. Brain illnesses vary. That’s another reason why the term “mental illness” is so flawed. “Illness” implies that there is one form of a brain illness. There actually are so many more brain illnesses: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Schizophrenia, the list goes on and on. Each brain illness has its own set of complexities that define it. Speaking of “define”…
  6. Brain illnesses do not define people. Would you ever define someone by diabetes, sleep apnea, or cancer? No. No you would not. So don’t do it to people with a brain illness. The same holds true if you have a brain illness. So often, we tend to fall into the trap of defining ourselves by our illnesses, and then we lose bits of ourselves. That’s one reason why I don’t write about my specific struggles with my illnesses that much unless it’s in retrospect. Part of this is to give people hope that it can get better. In order for that to happen, though, you have to put in the work.

Hopefully people read this and finally understand the reality of brain illnesses (or at least, start to, or be motivated to). If that can happen, then maybe people will shed the stigma and we can work to make brain healthcare more affordable and accessible to people. But, that won’t happen without education first. Personally, I think the best way to shed stigma and raise awareness is to teach students about brain illnesses in elementary school. That way, they don’t grow to accept the stigma before they have a chance to be educated.

I know there’s a lot of work to be done before that happens on the level it should. So, I’m going to continue to educate where and when I can. Hear me out. Open your mind. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Whatever you do, just don’t call me brave.

Aaron is a 27-year-old journalist who lives in Indiana and is from Pennsylvania. He has Borderline Personality Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, neither of which define him. He loves sports, music, his friends, and God. If you’d like to send food or classic vinyl records to Aaron, follow him on Twitter @allinthegame33