The Truth in Mental Health Memes

I tend to not know what most memes (images, text, and/or videos that spread widely across the Internet) mean, but I must admit I laughed when a close friend of mine sent me a new one making the rounds this week.

This new type of memes, called “My Therapist,” involves writing a short, fictitious exchange between a therapist and patient. It begins with the therapist asking a guiding question, followed by the patient giving an incorrect answer. It usually ends with the therapist - or someone else mentioned in the short dialogue - saying “no” to indicate that the answer was wrong.

I must admit I was thrilled to see a meme format that spoke about mental health - even though most people don’t take memes very seriously, it was great to see conversations about mental health happening - and I was particularly happy to find this example, which directly relates to how I cope.

Even before I knew much about writing, I was always coming up with stories in my head. It was a very common occurrence in my childhood for someone to ask me what I was looking at, only for me to realize I was staring off into the distance as I re-entered real life after immersing myself completely in a story.

Inserting trauma into stories, which the above meme references, is the best way I’ve been able to deal with my problems. When I faced a challenge in life and didn’t know how to deal with it, I threw it at a character, and was able to brainstorm solutions. Even if these solutions didn’t apply to the real world - like, if a problem in my story could be solved with a well-programmed robot or a particularly fast horse - I could extrapolate what I could do in real life to mimic that solution. And when I was mired in an endless sea of obsessive thoughts and just needed to escape, I could come up with a story about literally anything else, and dream it to life until I was calm and happy again.

The Ellies are probably the most obvious example of both sides of this. The Ellie from my college thesis grew out of the pain I experienced after my medical crisis seven years ago, when I began to wonder what can stop someone suffering from severe mental illness from breaking. As I discovered the process in real life, it flooded into the story. The Ellie I wrote as a nurse let me explore my fear of hospitals in a sensory way - by describing what a hospital smells and sounds like without experiencing it in real life, I could do some of the early stages of exposure therapy at home.

The stories can also switch purposes - I loved the story of the gymnast Ellie for being popular and athletic in high school when I wasn’t, and after my surgery, I gave her the same ailment and wondered how she’d move on. Spoiler alert, she didn’t move on well, but I eventually did, and writing the story helped me acknowledge my own strength after realizing I had coping skills she didn’t develop because of a lack of adversity.

Sometimes, I write like this on purpose. Other times, it infiltrates my work. More often than not, if I analyze a story of mine with at least one original character (and sometimes fanfiction as well), I find characters with OCD or some other form of anxiety. This can mean my characters have specific things that they obsess about, like a piece I wrote about a favorite character of mine being obsessed about getting to dinner early. Sometimes, their fear stops them from doing what they want. But, even considering this, my characters are focused, single-minded, and determined, and exploring these positive qualities has done a great deal to help my self-esteem after years of bullying in school and beyond.

Nowadays, my commute is a great breeding ground for stories, and the music I listen to often weaves itself into the plot in some way. If I’m bored when I’m doing chores or need a little help relaxing before I go to bed, I hop into my stories as easily as I hop into my own memories. I have a series of stock scenes I go to - re-imaginings of “Character X does Thing Y” that I’ve “written” in my head so many times that I know it by heart - and I also enjoy making up new ones. Since boredom is hard for me to handle, it helps to know that I have a series of stories from a variety of fandoms as well as my original creations to keep my mind away from unsavory things.

It was so refreshing to see a meme that I connected to one of the things I love the most about my life. I don’t think a day will come when I stop writing stories, and to see this written in the context of therapy and also published on the Internet is amazing. I’ve seen so much intolerance of people living with mental illness online that I wonder how this meme came to be, but I like to think it’s a sign that things are changing. People aren’t quite as narrow-minded about what they don’t understand, and words like “therapist” and “coping mechanism” are starting to become more mainstream instead of reserved for one particular community.

Even though many memes are made as jokes, I hope this one may inspire people to see each other in a new light. Maybe the strange behavior you observe in someone else isn’t a lack of respect or something weird to shun, but rather a specific coping skill they’ve developed. These lessons, when presented in a format my generation appreciates, can hopefully lead to more discussions about mental health and treating everyone with the respect they deserve.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.