08/04/2013 06:07 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2013

Laugh It Off: The Stigma of Living With Mental Illness

It's like being in a different country where everyone understands your language, but they misunderstand your meaning. It's like you're telling jokes all the time, everyone laughing appreciatively, when you're trying to ask for directions. And maybe that's become the new normal -- you're so used to everyone laughing when you say things like, "Rats make me think of the plague," in the subway that it becomes easier to joke about it.

After all, no one really wants to know the things you come up with in your head.

"Oh, you're a germophobe," they say. "That's okay. Everyone hates illness." But it's beyond that. Most of the time, though, it's easier to keep the joke going.

"I'm a germophobe, yeah," you laugh back. "It's a quirk of mine."

Because no one really wants to know that when you were 10, you lay awake at night, wondering if this was the night someone was going to come down with a horrible illness. No one wants to know that when you study old-time epidemics, it's not necessarily for research. It's a way of facing the fear, or facing the future, or facing something you can't name, even though your toes curl and goosebumps rise on your arms.

No one wants to know it because they don't know how to react. That's okay, because you don't know how to react, either.

What's it like not to worry about germs and illness? What's it like not to lose sleep over your friend having the flu or her kid coming down with a norovirus? You don't have the answer, so it's easier just to joke about it. A silly thing. A fact of life. You can't escape illness, so why try? Why even worry about it?

Except you do, and sometimes it's everything you can think about, and there's no break from it.

You can get diagnosed. You were diagnosed, at one point. Generalized anxiety and depression. They put you on pills that numbed your senses, but never fully shook that sinking feeling you get when you think about what illness does, what horrors it holds. And maybe you can go to therapy, where you stare into yet another person's eyes, yet another person who doesn't understand and probably doesn't want to, and try to figure out why you do these things that no one else understands.

"Rituals," they say. "The handwashing and the mantras and the praying. They're all rituals and they don't keep the fear away."

And suddenly, it's stupid. It's all stupid, so you stop going and stop taking the medicine and go back to joking. It is stupid. Illness is illness. You're an idiot and this is something you're going to have to get over.

Eventually it's easier to push it back. So, you might panic a little when someone says they feel sick around you. You might irrationally and temporarily hate a partner for getting sick and bringing illness into the house. You might even get annoyed when someone eats day-old expired food, because it's probably fine, but it might harbor things that will make them sick.

It's okay. It's all right. This is not anything but you being stupid as usual. This is your fault, your issue. Laughable, right? Laugh it off.

You know that if they really knew, they'd stare at you like you were something covered in dirt. "You need help," they'd say. They do say it, jokingly. "Oh, you need help."

And on good days you laugh about it, too. "Probably! I probably do!"

"You need help," says your family, wondering why you won't come out of your room because someone's got the flu.

"You need help," says your friends, watching you carefully disinfect your hands after being on the bus. Not once. Twice, maybe three times if it's flu season.

"You need help," says society, looking down on those who are different, who have inconvenient hang-ups, who need to be seen by psychiatrists and on medication, who need to change their diets, get more exercise, maybe even lock themselves away, unless they can laugh it off and downplay it, too.

And on the bad days, you might whisper, "I need help," but help seems so hard. A long journey with something you've lived with your entire life.

So you laugh. It's funny. Because it's a joke anyway, right? People like you are funny, comic relief. People to make fun of and to brush off. Silly germophobia. Silly handwashing and rituals and constant unwanted thoughts.

You laugh because it's easier than facing the fact that you've lived your whole life with this.

And if you laugh, no one will know just how much it hurts.

For more by Elizabeth Hawksworth, click here.

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