When I was asked to participate in Mental Illness Awareness Week, I balked at the idea. I have never identified as having a mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a mental illness is “a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning”.
There is no denying that my sensory processing disorder affects my thinking and daily functioning. Simply put, certain noises or textures cause me physical discomfort, and if exposed to too much stimulation for too long, my brain stops processing input and I enter a “brain fog” state of thinking until I can “recharge” by going somewhere quiet and calm. There are certain coping mechanisms that I use to mitigate overstimulation, such as distracting myself by playing with something in my hands or gripping a friend’s hand tightly. Often, the best tactic for me is avoidance of situations that I know will give me sensory overload. I have never been to a concert, I physically cannot eat lettuce, and on the few occasions I wore jeans as I child, I begged my mom to take them off.
All of this may sound exhausting and painful to a neurotypical person (someone without mental illness or any difference in brain function) but to me it’s a part of life. True, there are bad days where I struggle to leave the quiet of my room, but on good days I can focus intensely and notice things that others miss. I don’t view my life as especially lacking or the way my mind works as wrong or in need of fixing.
The notion of viewing mental illnesses less as harmful diseases and more as natural differences is known as neurodiversity. Neurodiversity sees all differences in brain function as unique and valid as they are; there is no need for neurodivergent people to conform to the neurotypical standard of “normalcy”.
Here I hasten to note that neurodiversity is but one way to think about mental illness, and I recognize that this model may not line up with how some people view their illness or difference. For some, there may not be “good days” or they may feel that their illness is best thought of as a disease or disorder. Those experiences are valid and I’m not at all trying to discount them. I can speak only for myself.
Although I do not consider my sensory processing disorder as a mental illness, the way it affects me is very similar. However, regardless of whether a person has SPD or OCD, it still stands that there are differences that people have in the way that they process the world around them/the things around them
Mental illness is too often treated as something horrible and pitiable, which in my opinion does not help support or include those with mental illness in society. If we view brain chemistry as having natural differences, the same as every other aspect of someone’s identity, it becomes easier to relate to others and be sensitive to their needs. It is my hope that we take the stigma and “otherness” out of mental illness and start embracing diversity. Just because my brain processes the world around me differently doesn’t make it wrong.