If you ask someone suffering from mental health issues to describe the experience, they won’t have an answer.
The answer to this impossible question has nothing to do with their condition. Or intelligence. Or vocabulary. It’s because suffering from mental health issues isn’t linear. Nor is it the same for everyone.
So how you describe something that is continually evolving, shifting, and that is unique for every single person?
If you asked someone to sum it up, rarely anyone has a universal analogy that everyone can empathise with. How do you sum up what suffering mental health is like?
But today, a person in my life stopped me dead in my tracks with his accurate analysis.
“It’s like completing a jigsaw puzzle. But you have no idea what the jigsaw is.”
You Don’t Know What The Picture Is
When you start a jigsaw puzzle, you’re presented with the coloured box. It depicts the glorious scenery the puzzle pieces will form.
You know what the end result will look like. You have an obvious goal.
But those suffering from mental health issues aren’t so lucky.
They don’t know what the end result ‘will look like’. They don’t know what their life will look like, what they want their life to be, or how long it will take them to see the complete picture. There is no vision of ‘healed’ mental health, like a finished puzzle.
The final picture doesn’t exist.
And if you think you have a picture in your mind, it often looks different from reality.
It’s only human to make predictions. Yet, when we make predictions, we are more likely to predict wrong. We don’t have time machines, after all.
Unfortunately, it’s also human nature to get it wrong. Yet, for people with mental health issues, getting it wrong can worsen the issue.
Despite this, guessing what the jigsaw looks like is all we have.
Sometimes the people helping us are guessing too. Even the most educated helpers, the doctors and medical professionals, are making educated guesses. The reason why is that with every person with a mental health condition, the jigsaw puzzle is different.
You Don’t Know How Many Pieces You Need To Find
On the front of the jigsaw box, it usually tells you how many pieces are in the box. 100, 500, 1000, you choose the number of pieces you want to complete.
Consequently, you choose how hard you want the puzzle to be. When you feel like less of a challenge, you pick the fifty-piece puzzle, for example.
When managing and treating mental health issues, there is no set number of puzzle pieces you’re trying to find. No one can tell you how big the puzzle is that you’re solving, nor do they know how large or complicated the pieces are going to be to put together.
To further complicate your situation, the puzzle size can get bigger.
Your diagnosis may become more significant. It may become more worrying for your overall health, or the treatment may become more intense.
And swiftly, you’re hunting for more puzzle pieces than you thought.
You Don’t Know Where Or When You Will Find A Piece
Opening up the puzzle box and every piece is there, ready for you to sort and put back together. Imagine your mental health issue is the puzzle box but you open it to find no pieces. Now, you’re on the hunt to find the puzzle pieces.
Where do you start? Where are they hiding? Where do you go looking?
Some puzzle pieces will come from conventional places. A referral to a specialist from your doctor is a puzzle piece you can rely on. A piece you can easily collect. A new medication change is another piece you can collect. You can also find pieces from friends, family, strangers or a quote on Pinterest.
But the pieces seem to come one by one. But when or how often is impossible to predict.
Not Every Discovery Is Worth One Piece
When I find the corner pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, it feels like I’ve completed the core of the jigsaw. I know the size of the puzzle, and I know where I’m headed. Putting the edges and corners in place feels like I’ve accomplished more than the actual pieces I’ve put into place.
Within mental health, a breakthrough moment can be worth more than a single piece.
This may be a diagnosis that’s taken years to find. Or a change in a doctor whose approach helps you make significant progress. These moments can give you more than one puzzle piece.
It may give you hundreds. It may solve half the puzzle in one moment.
You Can Lose Pieces
Just when you think you have a puzzle piece, you can lose it. They can fall on the floor. Hide behind another piece. Or you can misplace it as you work through other pieces.
When dealing with mental health, pieces can fall away. The people you rely on can disappear. The thoughts you could trust let you down. Or the pieces don’t make sense when lined up next to the others you’ve collected along the way.
That’s when you end up reshuffling the pieces.
Not All Puzzles Are Created Equal
A thousand-piece puzzle of an abstract pattern can be distinctly harder than a thousand-piece puzzle of a simple puppy picture. All jigsaws aren’t created equal.
Within the space of mental health, what depression, for example, means to one person means something to someone else. Everyone is working on a different jigsaw puzzle.
It may look from the outside that the puzzle is the same. But when you meet people with the same diagnosis as you, you realise how different the same issue can be for each person. Different symptoms. Different paths. Different concerns. Different consequences.
Therefore, you don’t know how hard the jigsaw is.
When you initially seek help for your mental health issues, you do not understand how hard the journey will be. You don’t know how long the process will be, what you will need to do, or how significant your issues are.
You can’t compare it to someone else’s journey and expect the same. While we can predict a thousand-piece puzzle has some level of difficulty, there is no prediction for any or every mental health issue.
Once again, expectation and assumption are concepts we can’t trust or rely on.
You May Never Solve The Jigsaw
Have you ever bought a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing? The anger and frustration is palpable. Solving the puzzle is the aim of the project, right? How can you do it without all the pieces?
In mental health, you may never get your hands on every piece of the puzzle. You may always have a niggling issue you can’t resolve, or a diagnosis you can’t figure out. Or a medication that never quite works perfectly for you.
Solving the puzzle may never happen. For some people, solving the puzzle isn’t the goal at all.
The puzzle piece hunting may last until your death bed. And knowing there is a missing piece to the puzzle is something you may learn to live with.
You may never quite understand why you have to seek counselling every week of your life. Or why your family never understood your diagnosis. These are pieces that could permanently stop your solving abilities.
And You May Solve The Jigsaw
Sometimes, all the pieces line up and you have a completed picture of your mental health situation.
But when you stand back to look at the completed jigsaw picture, there are no guarantees you will like what you see.
You didn’t choose this jigsaw, you didn’t choose the journey. And you may want to pack up the pieces and put it all away in the box and never look at it again.
Or you may need to start a new puzzle.
It’s Never That Simple
What this analogy the person in my life gave me was a process I could wholeheartedly understand. I appreciate that the concept of working on a jigsaw puzzle should be the same for everyone.
But it’s not.
It’s not even when you have the picture on the box, and all the pieces, and the outcome laid out for you. And that’s when you’re working with a run of the mill, bargain-basement jigsaw puzzle.
So how can it be the same when working on the jigsaw in the dark? With no idea of how many pieces? Or what the end goal is?
But what we need to appreciate with mental health, more than anything else, is that sufferers are constantly working on their issues. Twenty-four seven. There are no public holidays with mental health.
Sufferers don’t get a break. They don’t get to walk away from the puzzle, they don’t get to pack the puzzle away and work on it another day. They don’t get to use the puzzle as a way to relax or de-stress.
The puzzle is the source of confusion.
They are always searching for pieces. In the dark.
I posted this for everyone in a special place, which I won’t name. But you know who you are. I want you to know how incredible you are, how proud of you I am, and how I think your honesty has helped me understand what mental health truly is. And I hope that maybe one day, I can help add a piece to your puzzle.