Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Mental Illness

In this post, I’m going to be talking a bit about my own experience with mental illness, not because I think that my way of experiencing it was “right”, or because my experience was universal or anything along those lines. I am not a trained therapist. I am not a definitive master in this subject by any means. All I am is someone with an experience, someone who took a lesson from what I lived.

I am mostly going to be focusing on my experience with anxiety, as well. And, of course, every mental illness is different, and even those with anxiety experience it differently, but my hope is that you as the reader might find something in my experience that you relate to as well.

Anxiety has always been prevalent in my life. It is something that has run in my family – something that plagued some members to the point that they refused to even leave the house if they could avoid it. Yet, for years, my family just thought of a person’s anxiety as their “quirks”. If someone didn’t leave his house, it wasn’t because they were mentally ill, but because they was quirky, they had a healthy dislike of crowds, it was nothing. That was the way that mental illness was discussed in my family throughout most of my childhood.

When I was eighteen, I identified my constant stress and outright illogical level of fears as an anxiety disorder – one that hadn’t quite reached the degree of some of my family members, but that plagued me nonetheless. I had a hard time applying to jobs, because the thought of doing so was enough to send me into a panic attack. I couldn’t talk to anyone without stuttering, and after talking to them I made myself miserable with thoughts of “I bet they hated me” and “god, I’m so stupid, why did I do that?” And while I excelled at school, a big part of the reason for that was because I needed to finish all my projects several weeks in advance because I couldn’t stand the stress of having essays that weren’t done yet.

After I identified what I had as an anxiety disorder, I started to talk about it. And after I started to talk about it, I begin to identify the several others in my family who also dealt with their own anxiety, tracking the signs that should have been apparent to me from the beginning.

From there, I wanted to move immediately from identifying my anxiety disorder to curing it. I didn’t want to be swallowed whole by it, like so many others had. While they might have been perfectly satisfied living their days in solitude, I didn’t want that to be me. When I looked into my future, I longed for the image of a highly-educated, greatly successful writer with a wonderful partner who supported me through everything, and the way I saw it, none of this would be possible if I was still dealing with my anxiety at the time.

So, the logical choice: I needed to get rid of my anxiety.

The next year or so was spent trying to find ways to do that, although many of them only made things worse. I would intentionally do things that gave me anxiety because I knew that these were things I needed to do. But once these things would inevitably put me into a panic attack, my insistence on simply banishing these feelings wouldn’t work, which would only make me more stressed, which would only make me feel bad that I was so stressed. I got to a point where I was stressed about being stressed.

Essentially, I was telling myself that I couldn’t be a person with anxiety, which didn’t really work out because I was a person with anxiety. And throughout all of this, I had my mother trying to tell me that my anxiety wasn’t actually something to be ashamed of, that it was just a part of me that I needed to learn to live with.

But I didn’t want to hear that.

I didn’t want to have anxiety.

But eventually, I did come to the conclusion that what I was trying wasn’t working, and I was willing to try something different.

So when I got a panic attack, I stopped fighting it.

When something started to stress me out, I would slow down and talk to myself before a panic attack could start.

I learned ways of doing things that worked best for me, and before long, I discovered that I was capable of doing everything. At one time, I would have thought that anxiety stood in my way of getting the future that I wanted, but it doesn’t; all it is is something that I need to keep in mind and work with so that it doesn’t slow me down or stop me.

I still have anxiety. I do everything that I can to keep it controlled, which includes eating healthy, exercising, taking supplements, and, of course, designing my thinking around it, but every once in a while, it still props up. It just doesn’t stop me from doing anything that I want to do.

I am not ashamed of who I am, or the struggles that I have dealt with. If anything, they have made me stronger, made me realize just how capable I am. My anxiety has made me realize that the things that I want in life are going to make me uncomfortable, and they’re going to scare me, but that isn’t a sign that I shouldn’t do it. It’s just a sign that I need to change the way that I do it.

And this is the part of the post where I speak directly to you, because this is my message to you: not to be ashamed of who you are. Mental illness is not something that you choose to live with, but it is not something that needs to hold you back or define you. You can do everything that you want to do, even with it. As cheesy as it might sound, your only limits are the ones that you set for yourself, and that is just as true for mentally ill people as it is for neurotypical people.

And maybe you don’t completely believe it right now; I get that. Maybe it’s still difficult to believe that you can conquer the world when it’s difficult to even get out of bed in the morning, or leave the house. And I’m not trying to say that all of this will happen overnight. It didn’t for me. It will take time, and it will mean forming new habits and ways of thinking and doing, but it can happen. And the most important step in starting all of this is refusing to think that there is something inherently wrong with you. There isn’t. You are not wrong, you are just different, and you are not the only one who is different. Once you reach out and talk to other people, you’ll begin to realize that you are not alone. You are beautiful and you are strong and you are so much more capable than you know.

Why We Need to Suffer

So life kinda sucks, right?

And I don’t just mean your life. I mean everyone’s life. Every single one of us deals regularly with pain of some sort. We all have our difficulties to face, our dragons to battle. My dragon might be very different from your dragon, but we are united in our struggle nonetheless.

And I think it is fairly needless to say that struggling is… well, hard. Inherently, that is the nature of it; when you’re in pain, it is very difficult to get over, and it is very difficult to see the bright side of it, especially when you’re still in the thick of it. It’s very rare that you hear someone say, “thank you for hurting me, I really needed that,” at least not until years in the future when they’ve had some retrospect on the whole incident and the pain has had its chance to subside.

And more than that, I think that a lot of us tend to have this opinion about pain that it’s something that is better left avoided. We look back on certain choices that we made at the time and regret them, because those were choices that led to pain. We think that we would have been better off if we hadn’t suffered at all. We ask ourselves questions like “why me” and “what did I do to deserve this?”

But the thing about pain at the end of the day is that you need it. Pain is absolutely essential as a part of life and as a method of growth.

And I know, if you are currently in the thick of suffering, you probably hate me for saying that. You probably think that I sound insensitive, and you want to punch me in my stupid, optimistic face. Trust me, I get it; I’ve been in your position.

Throughout most of my life, I suffered from depression and anxiety. I self-harmed, I made plans on how to end my own life, and the only reason why I never really gave up on my life was because my anxiety animated me like a puppet on strings, propelling me forward with the help of nerves and fear. And especially when things were really bad, I often found myself wondering why? I blamed other people, I thought back on certain things that had made my mental illness worse and I wished that I could have avoided them, I was generally upset and bitter about my lot in life. After all, what had I done to deserve this? Why did I have to be born to have a harder time existing in this world at all?

And admittedly, I deal much easier with both illnesses now. I understand what they mean, I know how to cater my thoughts and actions around avoiding panic attacks and bouts of depression, and while it doesn’t always work, it does help. And since I have had an easier time dealing with my mental illnesses, I have come to learn that I am glad I dealt with them.

That’s not to say that I hope I struggle with dealing with them again. That’s not to say that I wish it upon other people, or that there is anything romantic and glamorous about suicidal thoughts and tendencies at all.

All that I am saying is that if I hadn’t dealt with them, if I hadn’t struggled the way that I had, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today. My struggles helped to shape who I am, how I think, what I push myself to do and what I aspire to be. They helped me to better understand when someone else is suffering and how important it is to help them. They made me a more empathetic person, and they made me a much stronger person. Because I have dealt with depression and anxiety, I know what that’s like, and I can use that experience to help someone else who is dealing with something similar. I have the ability to help someone else out by sharing my pain with them.

When you’re trying to make a muscle stronger, you must first cause yourself pain so that your body can repair it. The same is true with mental and emotional strength. If we were constantly happy and comfortable, there would be nothing to overcome. We would take things for granted and accept the world as it was, would make no attempts to make the world or ourselves better.

We need our pain because it is a part of our lives. Our pain takes us on different paths, just as much as our pleasure does. I have known people who used their pain to build a whole life, people who make a career out of helping others in a similar situation. I have known people who learn from pain, who discover how important it is to talk about the suffering that we experience in life and how important it is to not only help other people but to change things. Pain is not a hindrance in our lives; it is our teacher.

So, yes, life sucks. We all must suffer, and maybe that isn’t fair, but who said that life is fair? Beautiful things can still come from pain if we let it. If we focus on making ourselves strong despite pain, rather than allow ourselves to become weaker because of it, then pain can be a wonderful thing. It has so much potential, so long as you stop asking “why me?” and start asking, “what is the lesson in all of this?”

So forgive your pain. Don’t regret experiencing it. Don’t wish that it could have just gone away, because it shouldn’t have. You should have experienced it. After all, it helped form you into the person you are.

Your Reasons For Depression Are Enough

For as long as I can remember, I’ve either suffered from depression or depression-like symptoms. When I was ten years old, I started self-harming, first by digging my nails into my hands, then later by carving scars into my arm. When I was thirteen, I spent a lot of my time thinking about killing myself. When I was eighteen, I felt essentially empty, emotionless, just a shell of a person that walked and talked but didn’t actually resemble an actual human being.

But like a lot of people with depression (or any mental illness, for that matter), I told myself that I couldn’t have been depressed, that depression looked entirely different from what I was experiencing. Depression was something you had to earn a right to through hardship much worse than anything I had ever faced, whereas I was just wrong. I was just off.

Even today, four years after I admitted to myself that I have depression, I still get that feeling from time to time. After reading an article written by a woman who overcame depression after years of childhood sexual abuse and being taken into foster care at the age of ten, my first thought was, “how can I claim to have depression when I haven’t experienced half of what she has?”

And then later that same day, I was talking to someone about their own experiences with depression, and they prefaced their perspective by saying, “I haven’t experienced anything close to the depression that you have, but…” They then went on to explain that when they were depressed, they would simply go back to bed after completing all of the errands that they had no choice but to run, seeing no point in being awake after that – something which I personally never experienced. My anxiety always kept me from going back to bed, even if I wanted to, because no matter how pointless I saw everything, I needed to keep going lest I make myself feel even worse. Whether you see that as a positive or negative is up to you, but it isn’t really the point – my point is that our experiences were different. And from my perspective, I have a very hard time seeing my depression as worse than another person’s because I clawed up my arms instead of going back to bed and giving up on the day.

But I think that that’s a common issue that many people with mental illnesses experience – the belief that your mental illness isn’t enough, that your reason for having it isn’t enough. After all, there’s always going to be someone out there who had it worse than you. No matter what you experienced, no matter what you went through, there’s always going to be someone who went through more.

And perhaps part of the reason for this is that mental illnesses like depression manifest themselves in different ways. Some people have an easier time hiding it than others. Some people cope with it one way, some another. And for those people who have an easier time hiding it, they’re constantly going to be looking at someone who has a harder time hiding it and wondering, “what right do I have to be depressed? At least I’m not like that!” But it really isn’t about that. It’s the same illness, just two different ways of dealing with it.

And perhaps another reason for this is the fact that it is a relatively common response to someone who has depression to ask, “why do you have depression? You have so much to be happy about!” This response is something that many of us have heard, but it comes from a place of misunderstanding what depression is. Depression is a mental illness. It is a disease of the mind, just as serious and crippling as any physical illness but invisible, more complex. Yes, depression can be set off by some occurrence in your life, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.

And besides, if you have depression or depression-like symptoms, then you are not wrong. You are not simply off. The way you feel is valid, and it matters, and your reason for feeling that way, whatever it might be, is enough.

And why am I emphasizing this so much? Because it is important to recognize your own depression and to know that it is valid, because that is the only way that you are going to be able to reach out to get help.

As I mentioned, I have experienced depression or depression-like symptoms for as long as I remembered, but until I was able to recognize that that was what I had, that I was not simply ‘off’, I wasn’t able to reach out and ask for help, because I didn’t know how to vocalize it. And once I did know how to vocalize it, I was able to learn about it and find ways to cope with it. Only once I could talk about it without minimizing my perspective was I able to began the healing process.

And when it really comes down to it, pain is not a competition. It is important to help out and sympathize with people who have experienced worse than you have, of course, but the way that you feel is not invalid because someone else has felt worse. I mean, think about it in terms of physical health: why would you minimize and refuse to get help for a broken leg just because someone else had their leg amputated?

So let me leave you with these words: the way you feel is valid. Your reasons for feeling it are enough. And most importantly, you deserve to be happy and healthy and loved because you are an incredible, worthwhile person.

Being Not Okay

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As I was scrolling through Facebook this morning, I came across this post from QuotesGate. “A strong woman knows how to keep her life in order,” it said. “Even with tears in her eyes, she still manages to say ‘I’m Ok’ with a smile”.

And I’ll admit, maybe I was in the wrong place in life to come across this post, or maybe I’m just not the right audience for this post. I mean, yeah, sure, I’d identify myself as a strong woman, and that’s the only audience that this post specifically calls out, but I’m a strong woman who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety three years ago. Ever since then, I’ve been working hard every single day of my life, every last second that I’m forced to spend within my diseased mind, to achieve peace and happiness. But as hard as I’ve been working, the last month or so has been particularly hard on me. Completing my B.A. in English sent me into an existential spiral, wondering what the hell I was supposed to fill forty hours of my week with now – what would fulfill me in the same way that reading and learning new things did? To try and ease my pain, I got myself a job, which turned out to be thoroughly unenjoyable, and I was let go from it as soon as the busy period ended, which just threw me right back into that very same existential crisis, but with the added depression of wondering what I had fucked up, if I was actually employable in the real world, and what it was about this job that I had hated so much. And on top of all of that, I’ve had a very hard time getting in contact with old friends, I’m not very good at making new friends, and I am very, very, very, very single. And I’m not saying all of this to complain – everything that I’ve gone through is very simply a part of mundane, everyday life, and I know that I will get through it eventually. The only reason I am saying this is to explain why I have not been emotionally okay for the last month.

My life has not been kept in order. I’ve been trying to keep it in order, but I’m twenty two years old, which means that I have a whole lot to balance right now. My arms are filled with creative pursuits, my job, my ambitions, my friends, my family, my health, my love life, my passions, my financial situation, and because of my history with depression and anxiety, I’m holding all of them while balancing on one leg. And for the most part, I don’t think I’m doing a particularly terrible job at holding them. Some things slip from time to time, sure, but I’m confident in my ability to pick them back up again. Maybe not right now. Maybe not for a long time, and maybe life will suck a little bit until then, but I know that I’ll figure it out eventually, or at least learn how to live without them.

And here’s the thing – many of us have lives that aren’t in order right now. I am not alone in this. And more than that, many of us have lives that aren’t in order, and yet we don’t know how to put our lives back in order, but why should that make us any less strong? Having an orderly life is not the thing that indicates strength – what indicates strength is your ability to persevere, your ability to keep trying even when things aren’t in order. A strong woman (or man) may not know how to keep their life in order, but they shouldn’t be expected to. That is a hell of a thing to expect from a person, because nobody has all the answers, not even the strongest of us. The strongest of us just don’t give up, even when we don’t know what the hell we’re doing.

But more than that, let’s talk about the second part of this post, because it might be the part that irks me the most: the part that claims that a strong woman (or man) can tell the world that they are okay, even when they aren’t. And, yes, sometimes it is incredibly admirable of a person when they put aside their own feelings to fix or otherwise manage a situation. But that is not something that we can expect from someone constantly. As someone with a background in depression and anxiety, I know this firsthand. Sometimes, emotions get to be too much. Sometimes I need someone to talk to. Sometimes I need to let those tears in my eyes actually spill out onto my cheeks. And sometimes, when I’m not okay, I need to admit that I’m not okay, because that is the only way that I can figure out the best way to deal with the situation.

Emotions do not make us weak. Talking about our problems and admitting that we are not okay does not make us weak. For generations now, young boys have been told that strength means swallowing their emotions to become men, and as a result, there are many men who are emotionally immature and unavailable – this is not a message that we should be extending to women and girls now. Because here’s the thing – emotions are simply a part of us. We should be allowed to learn how to deal with this, how to talk about it, how to learn and grow with our emotions. Suppressing our emotions does not get rid of them – it only makes them manifest in different, more harmful ways.

And from my own personal experience, I was only able to confront my feelings around depression and anxiety when I was finally able to talk about them. I was only able to become okay when I was able to admit that I wasn’t okay. Because being not okay is perfectly natural. Sometimes it happens – there’s nothing shameful about it. And sometimes, admitting that you aren’t okay is the strongest thing that you can do.

What I Want

I want to be okay. That’s all. I want to be healthy, happy, unconcerned. I want to wake up in the morning and be excited to get out of bed.

I want friends. I want people who like me and understand me. Not a lot of them, maybe – just one or two would be nice. One or two who stay. One or two who don’t move away or find other people or just stop talking to me all of a sudden. I want to sit in a group of people and not feel like the outsider for once. I want to be with them and not feel like I have to keep trying for them to like me.

I want to fall in love. I want to meet someone who is attracted to me and who I am attracted to as well. I want a relationship that goes beyond an exchange of phone numbers and maybe an awkward kiss or handshake. I want someone who understands me.

I want a job that I enjoy. I want to spend the majority of my day doing something that makes the time go by, and yet I still make money nonetheless, at least enough money to survive. I want a stress-free place to stay in and depend on. I want the opportunity to feel free, like I can grow and change and become who I was meant to be. I want to be in the light and the earth, growing tall and new and green like a vine, rather than stunted and ugly like a weed.

I want a mind that remains calm in the storm. I want to face difficulty with a carefree smile and a shrug, rather than the question of whether or not this is it, the thing that breaks me for good. I want confidence in my ability to weather the hurricane, rather than the fear that I will be drowned in it. I want arms that are clear and soft and free of cuts or claw marks. I want hope and thrill and contentedness.

I want little, I think. I just want to be the way people say I should be – a happy, beautiful, well-adjusted young woman with my whole life ahead of me. That’s what I want. That’s all.