Mental Health: The Danger of Comparative Suffering

one time someone at my college did this on the stairs as an art installation
photo by DANNY G

First off, I’ve made it to Texas and have been okay so far. I’ve been diligent about working out, something that’s turned out to be key at keeping my depression at bay, and doing my best to keep “normal” sleeping hours. If I do anything each day, these two things are what I prioritize. I’m proud of myself, as I’ve had to be very intentional about each of my actions in order to care for myself, mental health, and ultimately my relationship with others. Don’t need a 2019 repeat.

This leads to something I’ve been thinking a lot about this summer (which is, weirdly, almost over): comparative suffering. I’m so tired of talking about the pandemic but, like it or not, it continues to inform every aspect our lives. The race rioting turning up to 10 in June has not helped the chaos and general scope of suffering. The media is colossally divisive, unifying language eludes our goober president, and we’ve largely left teachers and parents, the real pandemic MVPs, out to dry.

Progressives, the historical champion of the underdog and the political group in which I closest identify, want to keep everything locked down to maximize health safety. Conservatives want to expedite the re-opening process, possibly at the expense of innumerable lives, at the benefit of hard won business vitality and scholastic normalcy. Meanwhile, we’ve got poor parents stuck in between the two sides of a conundrum while everyone argues. It’s an argument worth having, of course, but how is a single parent with an active service industry job, two children, one old iPad, a shoddy internet connection, and no childcare managing paying bills and keeping their children on track with school? How about teachers, responsible for several classes, with school-age children of their own? We’ve kind of let the buck stop at our generally underserved population, parents, and it seems the new educational ideal only suits those who can afford having a stay-at-home parent. Further compounding the severity is the fact that educational disparity is the root of so many issues our country faces. I’m stressed. Are you stressed? I’m stressed.

Because I am a white lady who does not yet have children, I’ve been repeatedly heavy in praise and awe toward parents and BIPOC and, my god, people who identify as both of those things. I was invited to join a DIY anti-racist think tank made up of a small, primarily white cohort and surrounding Ibram X. Kendi’s renegade book How to be an Antiracist. I was a little late to the party and not completely caught up on reading, but in my first meeting I found like-minded, proactive white friends and one Indian friend committed to working together to undo our lifetimes of buried racist programming. While I was hopeful after meeting with these people and moved by Kendi’s words and calls to action, I fell off my standard cliff of depression I can typically be found teetering on and into a deeper, darker, and therefore more dangerous hole. My sadness crushed me into my recurring lived nightmare of self-hatred and ideas of self-harm. General inaction, with the notable inclusion of steps to undo a life of veiled racism, was a byproduct.

Next up is a white person classic: guilt. Oh, white guilt. Nobody wants to hear about it, and there I was stewing in it, hating myself for not being better. I called my [white] friend, the one who’d so generously invited me into the sacred, safe space, antiracist group to admit my feelings. I didn’t have it in me and needed to drop out. As a person living with mental illness and doing my best to survive (AKA stave off self harm, let alone COVID), I didn’t have any more emotional bandwidth. I felt I was failing my black brothers, sisters, and non-binary siblings, and I was crushed by my own ineptitude. I was bracing myself for my friend, married to an African American person, to take me by the proverbial shoulders and shake me, demanding I get it together, reinforcing what I knew to be true: BIPOC in America don’t have the luxury to woot around with psychiatry, Prozac, Lamictal, and Wellbutrin. In addition to the very equal-opportunity-affliction of mental illness, BIPOC are also living through a pandemic, perhaps also unable to secure a job like me, etc… all in addition to living through the every day trauma of moving through America as BIPOC. In regards to my feelings, in the canonical words of Sweet Brown, “ain’t nobody got time for that.”

Instead, I was surprised to be met with something I so fiercely value, something I do my best to always grant to others, and something that for some reason I fail to give myself. Grace. My friend reminded me to be gentle in my self-criticism and that while weighing our problems against each others’ is important for orientation and perspective, absolutely, me having Major Depressive and Anxiety Disorders was both less and more severe than current experiences of any other person on the street. She spoke on the dangers of comparative suffering, that taking on more than I could handle, something that leads me to an unhealthy, at-risk state, wasn’t actually going to help anyone. It reminded me of my psychiatrist’s standby of needing to put my own oxygen mask on first before being able to help others. The alternative is that, if I don’t, we could all be toast, which of course is also unhelpful and, well, ain’t nobody got time for.

The concept of comparative suffering is not meant to be explain away basic laziness or ignorance. Beware. It’s not a shield to hide behind so you may rest on your laurels in peace or an alleviation of responsibility. Instead it is meant to give grace to the overwhelmed who are doing their very best to be better.


Wednesday posts cover something that’s top of mind for me that week and are written in a short period of time. This means that editing is not strong. While it’s not my best work, it is my best, unfiltered thought.

More on Bummed Out Bailey:
Mental Health: The Social Toll of Invisible Illness
Mental Health: Drowning
Mental Health: Disjointed, Distracted, Discombobulated

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I’ve been enjoying my new addition of the nice-dog-photo postscript. This past week we lost our precious family golden retriever, Achilles, so I find it only appropriate to share a photo of our wonderful boy. His mild temperament, humorous antics, and precious face brought immeasurable peace and joy to all.

May you all have an Achilles in your life.