In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ve decided to write this piece:
I don’t like to say I suffer from a mental illness because suffer is such a serious word, and the truth is that sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not the right word to describe my mental illness. Sometimes I suffer. Sometimes I’m annoyed by my mental illness. Sometimes I deal with it. Sometimes I have to actively remember my mental illness. Sometimes I have to battle that son of a bitch relentlessness. Of all of the ways I can describe my mental illness ‘live with’ is the most important and accurate.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and for me, the awareness and acceptance of what mental illness is and is not have been lifesaving. The NRA and the Right would like us to believe that the poster child of mental illness is a deranged and angry young man who is so sick in his own head that he has to shoot innocent people. This is problematic for a number of reasons, but in terms of mental health awareness and acceptance, this image makes it extremely hard for those struggling with a mental illness to come forward and seek help without the fear of stigma or even retribution. As a country, we’ve gone from seeing the mentally ill as institutionalized crazies, to over medicated crybabies, to mass murderers. No wonder it is still extremely difficult for those with mental illness to openly acknowledge their illness and seek help. We are so ashamed of our disease that we won’t even admit to ourselves that we have it, never mind reaching out to professionals who can help.
For me, the acknowledgment of my mental illness saved my life. Mental illness runs, neigh, gallops across my family tree, and I was first diagnosed as a young teenager. Bi-polar, depression, and anxiety are all part of my official diagnosis, but it wasn’t until the last 3 years that I have been able to fully accept what it means to have a mental illness.
My most recent and serious depressive episode was a few years ago. Although mental illness is different for each person, for me, a depressive episode manifests itself in a combination of self-harm, self-hatred, paralyzing depression and fierce anxiety. And always, at the base of these episodes is the belief that I was too weak to fix myself. I was convinced that if I was stronger, I would be able to manage these emotions. If I was stronger, I could get out of bed. I could just be happy. I could be more appreciative. I could be less obsessive and anxious. I could wake up, like a normal person, without the onslaught of negative self-talk and the impending, continuous failure that was certain to face me throughout the day. And at the base of this, the insistence that I was too weak to do anything about it lead to a continuous downward cycle, where every day became harder and harder.
I convinced myself that if I was too weak to save myself, then I deserved all the failure that was surely coming my way. I didn’t deserve my friends, or my husband, or anything positive in my life, and I was convinced that anyone who thought highly of me, or any success that I had achieved was a mistake and I was fooling everyone into thinking that I was something I wasn’t. It wasn’t that I thought about suicide, it was more this yearning to not exist. I would lay in bed and pull so far into myself, just trying not to feel anything, and I would pray that I wouldn’t wake up. That I would just disappear. That I could erase my presence from this earth because I was so useless. I couldn’t be touched. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt. And I couldn’t do any of these things because I was so weak and stupid and useless and the cycle would begin all over again.
I wasn’t taking my medication because I was positive that I could get over this on my own, but really, I wasn’t taking my medication because I still couldn’t fully embrace what it meant to have a mental illness.
I’ve learned that my mental illness is one smooth talking dude. He’ll tell me anything to keep me sick. He’ll convince me that I am weak and useless and worthless and it’s my job to tell him to back off, shut up, quiet down, and usually, I need a lot of help to do that. I’ve come to realize that I was not struggling because I was weak, I was struggling because I was sick and I wasn’t taking the medication that I needed to get better. If I needed medication to make me feel better, my mental illness would tell me, I was weak. My therapist, bless his patient heart, never pushed me into medication. He helped me understand that mental illness isn’t a weakness, rather a disease, but I was in denial, serious denial, about my illness. And no wonder. Even with years of great therapists, I still believed what our culture told me about the mentally ill. Either I was a deviant, or I was weak, or I was being overly dramatic, or I was seriously deranged.
I thought about writing this article all month, but there is still a fear that I will be stigmatized by coming forward. I worry about what people in my life will think, what potential or current clients of mine will think, how my friends might think of me differently, and how they might treat me differently. But this illness is a part of my life, and speaking out about having a mental illness doesn’t change a single thing about who I am. I see a therapist regularly. I take my medication. I can usually feel oncoming depressive episode. I can gauge my anxiety levels, and instead of suffering silently, I can say to the people I trust, I’m feeling anxious or I’m feeling depressed. I have a list of coping mechanisms I use. I face this illness, head on, but I wouldn’t say I fight my illness. A fight means that someone will win and someone will lose, and the truth is that I’m no longer trying to win against my mental illness. My mental illness isn’t my enemy. It isn’t a flaw. It isn’t something that is wrong with me, or something I have to “get over”. It is a part of me, and to live happily with it for my entire life, I have to name it, own it and the only fight I have to win is the fight against feeling shame.
I have a mental illness. I’m still worthy of love. I’m still funny. I’m still strong. I’m still smart. I’m a pretty normal person, as are most people with mental illness, and I think it’s time that we proudly name it.